Local man Mark Spence was recently crowned ‘Special Needs Coach of the Year’ for 2015 by the NI Judo Federation.
Mark, who was also second in the 2015 Draynes Farm Sports Awards Coach of the Year category, said he was ‘honoured’ by the awards, but stressed the praise belonged to the club and not himself as an individual.
“I get a bit embarrassed,” Mark commented. “It’s not just me, I’ve got a whole team around me.
“I’m very honoured to receive this award,” he said. “I don’t do it for me, I do it for the kids.”
Mark is a coach at Hazama Judo Club, which also took second place in the Club of the Year category at the Lisburn Sports Awards, which runs several classes in Maghaberry Community Centre on a Tuesday evening.
He has also launched iCan Judo on a Saturday afternoon, for those with children with a variety of special needs, showing players what they can do, and not what they can’t.
Judo offers players the opportunity to benefit from self-discipline, increased confidence and social interaction.
Mark became involved with special needs judo a number of years ago when he was coaching a player at a competition.
Mark explained: “I was with a player at the British Championships and about halfway through he lost his temper.
“I explained to the referee that he was slightly autistic and he informed me about the special needs courses and championships.
“He has since won the British Championships, but also the Special Needs British Championships and the European Championships in Amsterdam.
“That’s one player, I realised there must be more than James out there.”
Hazama Judo Club integrate Special Needs Judo into every class they run.
However, Mark and the club believe there is a need and social responsiblilty for clubs to offer judo to children and adults with more severe levels of need, who are unable to fit into a mainstream class.
Due to this, Mark and the club offer Simply Judo, which allows those with all levels of need and ability to enjoy the sport.
Mark, meanwhile, organised and hosted Europe’s largest Special Needs Coaching Course at Maghaberry Community Centre last year, with 45 particpants attending the course.
Mark added: “I also went down south last October to open one of the first special needs clubs there.”
Mark explained the difference the judo classes can make to the children who attend them.
“There were parents with two children who were wrapped around their legs and wouldn’t leave them. Within three months they can now stand outside the room.
“We hold parents coffee morning’s, which allow the parents to get a break.
“We’ve had great support from the local community.
“There is no other martial arts club like this in Northern Ireland,” he added.
Mark currently has 24 members with special needs at the club, 12 juniors and 12 seniors.
He is also offering an iCan Assist initiative, through which he will offer assistance and advice to anyone wishing to start a special needs club elsewhere in Northern Ireland.
As a coach, Mark has returned with a European Championship Gold, two British Open Championship Silvers, and a British Open Championship Gold.
He has also produced Northern Ireland’s very first Special Needs International team.
If you would like more information about the club, call Mark on 07851 603860 or email firstname.lastname@example.org