Wheelchair basketball teams stayed mentally and physically focussed in pandemic shutdown

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Team Canada roster had to clear unexpected hurdles in race for Tokyo

Adaptation is not an unfamiliar concept to elite athletes, so when the pandemic began to affect Paralympians representing Team Canada, they did what they always do. 

They took it in stride.

Under conventional circumstances a player has to go through the arduous task of physically preparing for competition, however this year has produced atypical challenges.

Matteo Feriani, head coach of Canada’s men’s wheelchair basketball team, believes the COVID-19 safety protocols caused unexpected mental hurdles for athletes while preparing for the Paralympic Games. 

“The need to stay socially distanced and not being able to see another athlete to compare how fast he is going, how hard he is pushing, how bad he is shooting, how bad he is passing is a challenge,” said Feriani, over an internet interview.

To combat the uncertainty of how well they’re performing individually, they began using video tools to share different strategies with one another. 

Banging and crashing on the menu for Paras

In addition to staying optimistic during the pandemic, many wheelchair basketball players are excited about getting back to another key aspect of the sport.

The physicality.

Tara Llanes, a member of the Canadian Women’s National Team, wants to resume the routine along with her teammates as soon as possible.

“I haven’t passed a ball to someone in months. And I haven’t had contact, chair contact — which, you know, that’s going to take some time to get used to again once I do see my teammates,” she said.

The spectators can see and hear the high level of aggressive play through the amount of contact in any given game.

Teammate, Arinn Young, noticed a lot of new fans were entertained by the on-court collision caused by players fighting for position.

“That’s what people don’t really realize is it’s just as physical, sometimes more than any sport out there,” said Young.

“And so when people do come to a game and they’ve never experienced wheelchair basketball, they love it because you’re witnessing something that you’ve probably never seen before.”

Look for some aggressive court action in Tokyo.

Patrick Anderson, a veteran on the team, says the break that COVID-19 created could put the team a cut above the competition.

“If we continue on this path and really make use of the insights and knowledge that we’ve accumulated over the last year, I think we might end up being in a much better place than we would have been in 2020 if the Games had gone on as normal,” Anderson said, in a mid-March interview. “I think we have a chance to be one of the more prepared and smarter teams.”

Going into the Paralympics, Anderson knows Team Canada’s shooting isn’t at an elite level, and hopes that each player has taken advantage of the lockdown to work on things that they can control.

As COVID-19 began to spread in North America, some players found themselves in more precarious situations than others.

Arinn Young, of the women’s national squad, was still in Alabama attending school when she was forced to pack up and head home for Alberta before the borders closed.

Despite not being able to play with her teammates, she remained undeterred and focused on improving her game.

“I did miss playing as a team and stuff and I know my teammates will back me up here but I’ve always been very passionate about the sport so I think COVID just kind of ignited that fire in me more to just be able to perform out of such a bad year.”

She said that having to train alone for a team sport was difficult to wrap her mind around at first but also said that the team got pretty good at Zoom meetings, even conducting conditioning drills over Zoom so that they felt less alone.

Reporters Connor O’Neil and Kyle Marshall discuss wheelchair basketball on this Toronto Observer podcast.

In addition to finding creative ways to hone their skills, Feriani believes that having the athletes take a step back from the sport could result in positive effects that they’ll eventually see on the court.

“I think it’s important for the guys also to miss the sport, these guys have to think too much about the sport because there is so much pressure,” said Feriani. “When they’ve had the opportunity to find the court, they’ve been working harder. They’ve been more interested.

“They were really missing the court.” 

Colin Higgins echoes his coach’s sentiment, and has found comfort through sharing hobbies with family members at home.

“It was just nice to get out and do something a little different with my mom. It was my first real gardening experience,” said Higgins.

Garrett Ostepchuk, a roster spot hopeful, has taken advantage of his time off the court as well.

“Things like meditation have really helped me a lot and honestly, I’ve been trying to read a lot more books too,” he said. 

Whether it’s improving themselves on or off the court, the players and coaching staff associated with the men’s and women’s teams have remained dedicated to winning, albeit this year, through unconventional methods.

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Posted: Mar 13 2021 8:32 am
Edition: Toronto
Filed under: Special Reports Tokyo Paralympics Wheelchair Basketball