Early in August, I had the opportunity to spend a week in Toronto learning from the incredible group of coaches, players, and staff that make up Canada Wheelchair Basketball. Mike Frogley, formerly the head coach of the University of Illinois and a legendary wheelchair basketball coach and innovator, was an early mentor in my coaching career. I spent several days at U of I back in 2011 studying his teaching techniques as I was first dipping my toe into coaching in Afghanistan; it was an experience that contributed hugely to my moving into coaching and sport program development as a full time career.

Coach Frogley (known by everyone simply as “Frog”) is now the head of the Wheelchair Basketball Canada National Academy. Created in 2013, the Academy is the world’s first full-time, year-round, daily training environment for high performance wheelchair basketball athletes. Though it had been several years since we’d last seen each other, Frog, who has continued to follow the progress of the Afghanistan wheelchair basketball program from afar, invited me to come to the Academy to spend some time with the Team Canada men’s and women’s teams as they went through their final preparations for the Summer Paralympics, taking place from September 7th-18th in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Always looking for ways to improve my knowledge and skills as a coach, I jumped at the chance.

Coaching

I knew going into the experience that I’d have the chance to learn from some of the best wheelchair basketball minds in the world during my time in Canada, but I assumed that learning would be primarily from the perspective of a passive observer trying to internalize as much information as possible without interrupting the flow of the program’s training camp. I should have known that Frog would never allow me to take such a predictable approach. My first morning there, he asked if I would be up for coaching the Black Aces – a team of extremely talented players from around Canada that was formed to give the men’s national team the best possible competition in its preparation for international tournaments (the Red Aces play a similar role with the women’s team). I’ve built up a decent amount of coaching experience working with players in the various developing countries where I’ve helped to start programs, and have had the honor to coach some world class individual players with the men’s and women’s Rolling Nuggets teams in Colorado the past three years, but I’d never coached a full group of players at this high a level, not to mention against the defending Paralympic gold medalists from the Canadian men’s team. Beyond that, I didn’t even know any of their names! But if Frog had the confidence that I could handle the job, who was I to argue?

The experience turned out to be fantastic. The Black Aces are a terrific group and an amazingly athletic, intelligent team. They were very patient with me as I stumbled over their names during timeouts during that first game. What I didn’t learn until later was that several of the Aces aren’t even disabled. They’re able-bodied players who have spent years competing as part of local wheelchair basketball club teams in their home cities alongside disabled teammates. They were so impressive in their wheelchairs that I never would have known had someone not told me.

I’d played against a few able-bodied players back in the early years of my playing career. I was still a fairly new player with the Portland Wheelblazers when we traveled north to Vancouver, B.C. to play the team there in 2003. It’s been a common model for Canadian teams for a while. Such a massive country with a very diffuse population meant teams needed more bodies in order to have enough players for practices and games, so they opened up wheelchair basketball to anyone who was interested in playing. Several countries have since adopted this concept, with each team being allowed a limited number of able-bodied players. It has created an ongoing debate about whether allowing able-bodied players to join wheelchair basketball teams should be a standard practice everywhere. Both sides of the argument make compelling points:

One side contends that allowing non-disabled athletes to play would potentially reduce the number of opportunities for disabled athletes – the ones for which wheelchair basketball was originally created – and could sully the insular environment that has been created to ensure the game remains pure.

The other says that the only way for the game to gain the kind of broad appeal it deserves – and reach the highest possible level of play – is to allow the best athletes to compete with and against each other, whether they are physically disabled or not. It also points to the fundamental idea of inclusion of people with disabilities – and how the only way that can be promoted to its fullest extent is if everyone is able to be included in the sport.

One thing that was made clear to me in working with the Black Aces was that there is fundamentally no physical difference between an able-bodied player and a minimally disabled player once they are in basketball wheelchairs and competing on the court. I’ve been playing wheelchair basketball for over 15 years and coaching it for seven, and I had no idea four of the players I was coaching were any different than the rest of the high-classification players on the court. When they succeeded, it was due to their skill and intelligence, not any unfair physical advantage. When they failed, it was because their opponents on the Canadian national team – all of whom were disabled – pushed harder or made better physical moves and mental decisions.

The other thing that became clear to me over the course of the week, as I got to know the players on the Black Aces better, was that the able-bodied players were every bit as passionate and dedicated to the game of wheelchair basketball as the rest of us. It was strange to realize that, as a group of people that is accustomed to being marginalized in our societies and is constantly pushing for acceptance as equals, our disabled community is, in this particular case, promoting a similar kind of discrimination by keeping these athletes from having the opportunity to play their chosen sport at the highest level. In Canada and a few other countries, at least there is integration between able-bodied and disabled players at the local level. In the U.S, there is no opportunity for non-disabled players to compete in wheelchair basketball at all.* From my perspective, not allowing skilled, committed athletes to join our game is an anachronistic practice that I hope to see fade away in the near future.

Learning

In addition to the invaluable practical experience I got coaching the Black and Red Aces against the Canadian men’s and women’s teams, I also had tons of opportunity to dialogue with and pick the brains of the coaching and technical staff of Canada Wheelchair Basketball. Each person, from the head coaches of the teams to the youngest intern, had knowledge that I knew would help me immeasurably in my ongoing development as a coach and program developer. In addition, the players themselves have a massive collective knowledge base, from which I gleaned as much as I possibly could in both game environments and in strategy sessions. Everyone was so generous with their time, and I tried to have individual conversations with as many people from around the program as possible in order to learn from each of their unique perspectives.

While I can’t say enough to thank everyone for welcoming me into their circle during such an important training environment, I have to give a special thank you to Frog. Not only did he invite me to be a part of this experience for no other reason than a desire to see wheelchair basketball spread around the world as effectively as possible, but he carved out hours each day to sit down with me and explain all aspects of their player and team development approaches, how they’re using analytics and game video in new and innovative ways, how they plan practices over extended time frames, and how they prepare their players for tournaments like the Paralympics. I could not have asked for a richer, more impactful learning environment than the one he provided.

Teaching

The one thing Frog asked of me in exchange for the phenomenal growth opportunity he and his program were providing was that I give a presentation to the men’s and women’s national teams, the Red and Black Aces, and all the staff and coaches about my experiences coaching in Afghanistan and elsewhere. He is constantly looking for ways to expand the basketball education they are delivering through the Academy and national team programs to encompass larger concepts, including the ways the members of the program can use basketball to make an impact off the court as well as on it.

I was honored to be asked to give the talk, and spent about an hour giving an overview of the story of my first trip to Afghanistan in 2009 all the way up to the Afghanistan men’s national team competing in the Paralympic Qualifying Tournament for Asia last October. I hoped the story and photos I shared would strike a chord with at least a few of the 50 or so people in the room and help them see similar possibilities for their own futures. I had no idea how broadly that message would resonate, though, and was amazed to see several people (who will remain nameless to protect their tough athlete reputations) with tears in their eyes by the end of the talk. Once I concluded and answered some questions, there was immediately a line of players wanting to talk to me and find out how they could help with the initiative I’m building with the ICRC. One of the coaches, Paul Bowes, with whom I had the pleasure of coaching the Black and Red Aces, told me afterward that he had never seen the group of players that focused for that long without a single person checking their phones, dozing off, or losing attention in any way. What a compliment.

I’ve hoped for several years that eventually the ICRC sports program for people with physical disabilities would grow to the point that we would be able to engage other coaches in bringing wheelchair basketball and other sports to developing countries dealing with conflict around the world. Knowing that such a knowledgeable group as Wheelchair Basketball Canada is be willing to be a part its evolution is unbelievably exciting.

Talking

The day before I came home, I had a chance to meet up with two very good friends, Pat and Anna Anderson, and their one-year-old son, Stanley. We went out to breakfast and, while sitting at a table near the entrance, a man walked into the restaurant, looked over, and said to me, “Salam alaikum. Khoubasten?” (“Peace be with you. How are you?”) in Dari, the primary language in Afghanistan. I instinctively responded in the same language, “I’m fine, thanks. How are you?” before stopping and saying, in English, “Wait a second… how did you know I’d understand that??” He smiled and pointed to my shirt, which had a small Afghanistan flag on the chest. We introduced ourselves – he had moved to Canada years before from Kabul – and he asked why I was wearing the shirt. When I told him I coach wheelchair basketball in Afghanistan, he could hardly believe it. He was elated to hear about the program and wished me and the players there great luck in our future endeavors.

One last fun experience I had just before leaving was talking with Pat for the first episode of a wheelchair basketball-focused podcast he’s planning to launch soon. Pat played for the Canadian national team for many years, winning three gold medals, but retired following the 2012 London Paralympics. He’s still a great ambassador and advocate for the game, and his podcast should be a great mechanism through which to engender discussion on important topics and bring further awareness of the game to the broader public. I don’t know exactly when the first episode will be available, but I’ll be sure to post it here once it is.

In about 2 weeks, I’ll be flying down to Rio to represent the ICRC at the last few days of the Paralympics, during which I’ll be attending a summit focused on continuing to use sport as a lever through which to promote inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society, as well as giving a similar talk to the one I did in Toronto. I’ll also have the chance to watch a couple of Team USA players I’ve coached with the Nuggets (go Christina and Natalie!) as well as see my new friends from Canada compete for men’s and women’s medals. Good luck to all!

 

 

 

 

 

* The one exception in the US is in the collegiate division, where a recently-adopted rule allows newly-formed collegiate teams to roster able-bodied players until they have a chance to develop their program fully enough to have an entire team of disabled players.