Instructing wheelchair tennis can be fun and challenging. Any success I had in coaching wheelchair tennis was because the Canadian Coaching methodology is easily adapted to wheelchair tennis (I had the honour of coaching 3 players to the top 10 in the world in the Quad and Women’s open divisions and 2 players in the top 40 of Men’s Open.).
Let’s cover some similarities and differences coaches should keep in mind:
- The Chair
- Injury Level
- Tactical & Technical Considerations
- Court movement in a chair
- Rules of wheelchair tennis
- THE CHAIR
In general, all wheelchairs can be used. However, use of a rigid frame sport wheelchair is strongly recommended. The newest chairs all have 4 wheels. The wheels can be in various configurations. These chairs dramatically increase the player’s ability to maneuver.
- Preferably lightweight and rigid
- The more the wheels are ‘cambered’ (angled with the top of the wheel more in towards the player and the bottom more out) the more maneuverable and stable the chair. 12 to 22 degrees is recommended
- High pressure
- 24 to 26 inches in diameter and one inch wide
- Approximately 3 to 4 inches in diameter
- If larger, slows ability to turn
- If smaller, may not roll smoothly and ‘flutter’
- Not too thin (may damage the court)
The following adjustments increase speed, mobility, and balance:
*Note: with all adjustments, personal preference and disability should be considered.
- Slant seat downward for more stability (lower in the back of the seat)
- Adjust seat so elbows are close to wheel for optimal pushing
- Weight Distribution: Find the best balance between maneuverability and stability
- Adjust weight towards axles for quicker movement. (chair becomes ‘tippy’)
- Adjust weight forward to increase stability and a quicker start
- The feet could be moved more under the body to keep the weight centered
- Side panel can be added to reduce sideways movement of buttocks
These can enhance balance and improve mobility:
- Chest & Waist straps: These can improve balance and often confidence but can hinder reaching and rotation movement, if not properly adjusted.
- Leg straps: A strap around the thighs or just above the knees prevents the legs from spreading and keeps the body moving as a unit. A strap in front of the knees or shins keeps the legs back.
- Foot straps: These will keep the feet securely on the footpad when turning, or during leg spasms.
NOTE: There is no single way to set up the player’s chair. The process of adjusting for optimal position is an ongoing process. The general rule is to make small adjustments over time to avoid major changes in balance.
2. INJURY LEVEL
NOTE: Players who are not physically challenged can also play the sport of wheelchair tennis but not in officially sanctioned competitions
The level and degree of injury in Spinal Cord Injured (SCI) players will affect their balance, available range of motion, and mobility. The more you know about the student’s injury level, the better you will be able to adapt techniques and drills. The following SCI classification can help you determine the student’s capabilities.
The lowest level on the spinal cord that exhibits intact motor and sensory function classifies spinal cord injuries. For example, a player classified T3 was injured at that vertebra.
It is also important to note that a player’s injury can be complete or incomplete. The latter will allow some function below the level of injury. The diagram shows the level of injury and what muscles might be affected.
NOTE: This is a general guide. It is always best to ask the player to show you their specific movement capabilities related to the requirements of wheelchair tennis.
The following are terms you should be familiar with:
- Amputees: An amputee is a wheelchair tennis player who has lost part or all of one or both legs. In general, they have all the same capabilities as other wheelchair players. Sometimes, in the case of a player with no legs, they may even have the potential for more maneuverability because of less body mass and fully-functional upper bodies.
- Quadriplegics: A Quadriplegic (or ‘Quad’) is an SCI with an injury to the cervical or high thoracic part of the spine causing impairment to one or more lower, and one or more upper limbs.
3. TACTICAL & TECHNICAL CONSIDERATIONS
Tactically, it is important to understand that wheelchair tennis is tennis. All the basic tactics apply. It is all about controlling time & space. Of course, wheelchair players may have limitations that can be exploited by opponents but, developing a player means they need a basic tactical foundation that would be the same as any player.
Technically, the fundamentals of racquet work and ball control are the same for wheelchair players as ‘stand-up’ players. The main difference is that wheelchair players have less time to execute shots. The combination of mobility limitations and the fact that the racquet hand is engaged in maneuvering the chair makes it difficult to prepare early.
The following are some specific technical points to consider regarding the three stroke families:
- Grips: All grips for tennis also work for wheelchair players. Coaches should guide players into grips that would work best for each individual. One additional grip required is the grip to hold the wheel and the racquet. Each player must find a grip that can maximize the contact point on the wheel and allow for a quick transition to hitting.
Note: Quad players typically have to tape their hands to their racquet grip. The coaching challenge is to pick a grip that is most useful in the majority of situations but, can also enhance stroke strengths.
- Balance & Stability: It is acceptable for the player (right-handed) to grab the left side of the chair for balance while performing groundstrokes. On forehands, a player may lean on both knees with the left forearm.
- For extra rotation, a player can pull back on the left wheel on forehands
Serve & Overhead
- Toss: Higher injury level players will not be able to toss the ball directly over or behind the head.
- Impact point: On overheads, the player must maneuver to impact the ball slightly in front of the chair. Taking the ball on the bounce, or chasing it down and hitting ‘over the shoulder’ are other options. With 4-wheel chairs (chairs with an additional wheel in the rear) a short backward roll is also possible.
- Balance & Stability: A technique that can improve stability is to grab the left side of the chair or pull back on the left wheel immediately after the serve toss.
Wheelchair players do not come to the net often because of lateral mobility limitations. However, players should be encouraged to attack the net to finish points at opportune times.
4. COURT MOVEMENT IN A CHAIR
Dr. Bal Moore, former coach of the US Olympic wheelchair team has said, “Mobility is the single most important aspect of wheelchair tennis. It provides the base and transition for balance, timing, motion, and the execution of skills. This is perhaps the biggest difference between wheelchair and able-bodied (A/B) tennis.”
Mastering mobility is probably the most important area in becoming a good wheelchair player.Randy Snow – 10 time US open wheelchair champion
To develop players, coaches need to know the framework and components of wheelchair tennis movement.
In order to maximize positioning for any shot, a wheelchair player goes through a “Mobility Cycle”. The Cycle includes:
- The ‘Neutral Position’
- ‘Maneuvering’ (the movement of the chair to position for the shot)
- ‘Preparation’ (setting up for the stroke & the stroke itself)
- ‘Recovery’ (the chair movement to prepare for the next shot).
During the Mobility Cycle it is an important goal for the player to keep moving continuously. In this way the laws of inertia and momentum can work for the player. A point may consist of many Cycles linked together with the player’s movement flowing from one Cycle to the next. This continuous movement is called ‘Circular Mobility’ and is preferred over repeated stationary starts.
NOTE: The Mobility Cycle provides a systematic framework for coaches to observe, analyze and train the specific components of footwork. Videos covering the details of the Mobility Cycle are available for TPA members on the TPA website.
5. RULES OF WHEELCHAIR TENNIS
The game of wheelchair tennis follows the Rules of Tennis as endorsed by the International Tennis Federation, except the wheelchair tennis player is allowed two bounces of the ball. The player must, before the ball in play has hit the ground three times consecutively, return the ball.
The wheelchair is part of the body, all applicable ITF RULES which apply to a players body shall apply to the wheelchair.
a) The Competitive Wheelchair Tennis Player
i) The only eligibility requirement for an individual to become a competitive wheelchair tennis player is that he/she must be medically diagnosed as having a permanent mobility-related disability. In other words, he/she must have substantial or total loss of function in one or more extremities. If, as a result of these functional limitation, this person would be unable to play competitive able-bodied tennis (that is, having the mobility to cover the court with adequate speed), then this person would be eligible to play competitive wheelchair tennis in sanctioned ITF Wheelchair Tennis Tournaments.
ii) A Quadriplegic Division player shall be characterized as one who has limited mobility, power and strength, in at least three extremities. Also included in this division are walking quadriplegics, power wheelchair-users, and triple amputees.
iii) If there is a reason to doubt an individual’s eligibility to participate as a competitive wheelchair tennis player, the ITF WHEELCHAIR TENNIS COMMITTEE reserves the right to determine any player’s eligibility. A verification of eligibility may be required from a doctor, when in doubt.
The definition of lower extremities is: the lower limb including the buttocks, hip, thigh, leg, ankle, and foot.
b) The Service
i) The served ball may, after hitting the ground in the service court, bounce on the ground once again within the bonds of the court or it may bounce outside the court boundaries before the receiver returns it.
ii) The server shall throughout the delivery of the service:
a) the service shall be delivered in the following manner. Immediately before commencing to serve, the server shall be in a stationary position. The server shall then be allowed one push before striking the ball.
b) Not touch with any wheel, any area other than that behind the baseline within the imaginary extension of the center-mark and sideline.
iii) If conventional methods for the service are physically impossible for a quadriplegic player, then an individual may drop the ball for such a player.
c) The Ball in Play
The ball is in play until the point is decided. The ball must be returned into the opponent’s court prior to it striking the ground a third time. The second bounce can be either in or out of the court boundaries.
d) Player Loses Point
A player loses the point if:
i) He/She fails to return the ball before it has touched the ground 3 times
ii) He/She uses any part of their lower extremities as brakes or as stabilizers to touch the ground while delivering the service, striking the ball, turning or stopping
iii) He/She fails to keep one buttock in contact with his/her wheelchair seat.
e) Wheelchair/Able-bodied Tennis
Where a wheelchair player is defined in Rule (a) above, is playing with or against an able-bodied person in singles or in doubles, the Rules of Wheelchair Tennis shall apply for the wheelchair player while the Rules of Tennis for able-bodied tennis shall apply for the able-bodied player. In this instance, the wheelchair player is allowed two bounces while the able-bodied player is allowed only one bounce.
Coaching Wheelchair tennis is a challenge that is rewarding for both coach and player. The Canadian methodology gives any coach tools to help wheelchair r players improve.