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Coaching Special Olympics athletes to shoot for the stars

Back row - Nathan Winkelman, Hayden Wilson, Coach Wi Te Pou, Reuben Tearle, Laura Montgomery - Front row - Jazmyn McGregor and Coach Simone Kokaua.

About 12 years ago Simone Kokaua’s nephew Richie, who has diverse needs, got into playing basketball and her sister asked her to drive the bus for the team one day. This experience led to her volunteer to coach one of the teams after witnessing how some of the coaches preferred to give only the more skillful players court time, something she wasn’t cool with and wanted to see change.

Fast forward to now and Simone has just returned from Germany where she coached the Special Olympics New Zealand 3x3 Unified Basketball team.

Simone started her learning journey as an adult student at Wintec, firstly completing her Bachelor of Sport and Exercise Science.

“I originally wanted to study to learn more to see if I could be more effective in my role as a coach.”

After completing her first degree she worked at Sport Waikato before taking up the opportunity to come back to Wintec and complete her postgraduate studies.

Simone is now Wintec | Te Pūkenga Biokinetic Clinic Supervisor in the Centre of Sport Science and Human Performance. She started in the clinic in 2022 where she supports people with chronic diseases to improve their health and quality of life through physical activity and movement, after finishing her Postgraduate in Sport Science and Human Performance and she is currently studying her masters.

“When I rocked into Wintec the first time I thought ‘oh, maybe I’ve done the wrong thing’, but I’d already paid my money, so I was committed. I put three photos on my desk to remind me the reason why I should be studying, one my family, another of the athletes I work with, and the last one was the paid invoice for my study fees. That’s how I started, and I still do that now. It’s my motivation.

“I thought I was just coming to Wintec to become a better coach; I didn’t realise how many doors study would open for me,” she said.

Before her pivotal van drive Simone said she was working in the trades industry doing something totally different to what she is now.

“Sport has always been part of my family's life, so I couldn’t see why my nephew couldn’t have the same opportunities to play sport as the rest of us. Just because someone is wired differently doesn’t mean they don’t want the same things out of life as everyone else. Why should we define them by their capabilities?”

Simone’s nephew doesn’t play anymore but she continued to coach anyway.

“There’s a need there and someone must meet it. Research shows that if you are inactive so many things you don’t want to happen to your body can happen. So, if I can influence change using basketball as the tool, then so be it.”

The Special Olympics NZ 3x3 Unified Basketball team came in fourth in their division, with Simone as one of their proud coaches. 

“They were up against taller stronger countries and height difference was a huge thing, so they did exceptionally well,” the humble coach said.

The team was made up of athletes from all over New Zealand. Nathan Winkelman (Christchurch), Hayden Wilson (Palmerston North), Laura Montgomery (Hutt Valley), along with Reuben Tearle, Jazmyn McGregor and Co-coach Wi Te Pou all from Franklin/Pukekohe area. 

Simone said to become a World Games Special Olympics coach your local club nominates you and then you go through a selection process with the Special Olympics NZ committee. She said it was an honour to be a coach for this team and every team.

After the selection camp, the team had two camps together before going over to Germany to compete. Each camp was two days long, meaning they only spent four days total training together for the competition. Simone said she utilised Zoom and Facebook to help build relationships between the coaches and players. 

“Most of the games were so close there were only one or two points in it. For me, if we can help assist the players achieve their goals, we’ve done our job.”

Her involvement with Special Olympics NZ has seen her coach at several National Summer Games, two World Games in Los Angeles and Abu Dhabi and she is now on the board of Special Olympics NZ and chairs the Central North Island Regional committee.

“I couldn’t do what I do without the support of my family, friends and colleagues. We all stand on the shoulders of others that help us to achieve,” she said.

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