Home Health & Fitness

An Introduction to Wheelchair Basketball – A Q&A with Coach Dr. Katica

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Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Charlie Katica

By Robert Herron, MA, CSCS*D, ACSM-CEP |

During the summer of 2019, the U.S. Olympic Committee changed their name to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) to better emphasize the importance and commitment to the full inclusion of U.S. athletes.  This change follows Team U.S.A’s historic success at the recent PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games (76 athletes and 36 metals).    

Of the Paralympic sports that are gaining popularity, wheelchair basketball is among the most popular in the United States. During the most-recent 2016 Paralympic Summer Games wheelchair basketball sold 85% of their tickets. Additionally, both the men’s and women’s U.S. wheelchair basketball teams won gold medals.  

According to the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA), their organization now includes over 200 teams across 22 conferences.  The NWBA, founded in 1948, is made up of 8 divisions that include; high-performance, intercollegiate, and junior programs – among others.

To learn more about wheelchair basketball, I spoke with Dr. Charlie Katica, a coach with the Tacoma Metro Parks Adaptive Recreation Program (Washington).

Question:  Dr. Katica, tell us how you got involved in wheelchair basketball.

Katica:  I initially started working in adapted sports about 10 years ago in a strength and conditioning capacity at The University of Alabama.  Drs. Hardin and Stran had developed successful men’s and women’s teams and were looking to add more of a strength and conditioning emphasis. My work there led to an assistant coaching job and ultimately a head coaching job with Alabama a few years later.  Eventually, my family wanted to move closer to home in the Pacific Northwest and I was fortunate enough to get a faculty position at Pacific Lutheran University.  In 2015, the Tacoma Metro Parks Adaptive Recreation Program let me start helping out and I’ve been with them ever since. 

Question:  Tell us more about the rules for wheelchair basketball.  How do the rules differ from the stand-up game for those who are unfamiliar?

Katica:  For those unfamiliar with the game, the major rule difference is a player with the ball can only contact the wheel of the chair twice before having to dribble.  Similar to traveling vs. two-steps in the stand-up game.  Other than that the court is the same and the 30-second shot clock, 10-second backcourt, and 3-second lane violations are similar.  Another strategic difference is, for the most part, it is easier for the defender to guard an offensive player by squaring up with the defensive player’s back towards the offensive player.  As the offensive player moves it is easier for the defender to stay in front if they do not have the turn the chair 180°.

Question:  Are there differences in the rules between recreation and high-performance settings?

Katica:  In the high-performance settings, to help with leveling the playing field, there is a player classification system.  Essentially, professionals/coaches will evaluate a player and place them in a class that ranges between 1.0-to-4.5 based on their functional mobility, with 1.0 having less functional mobility than 4.5.  Then the league will set an upper-end threshold as to how many points you can have on the court.  So, the coach has to thoughtfully put together the team on the court keeping the sum of their classification score under 15.0 in the NWBA and 14.0 internationally.  

Question:  So, your start with adapted sports was working in strength and conditioning, can you discuss some of the priorities one should consider when working with athletes who play wheelchair basketball?    

Katica:  Absolutely!  All sports have specific needs and priorities. Because of the anatomy of the upper body, there is a risk of overuse injuries in the shoulder, elbow, and wrists for those playing wheelchair basketball – due to the high effort and work volumes.  Training should be adjusted to include recovery time for those areas, specific interest needs to be paid to the antagonist muscles (a.k.a. opposite) that are used to propel the wheelchair.  Athletes need to make sure they have a good balance between those muscle groups.  Strength is independence for individuals that use a wheelchair. When individuals start to build their strength, they will be able to transfer to furniture, into their cars, use the restroom, etc.. It is important to have a structured and appropriate strength and conditioning program for adapted athletes, because if the training injures individuals their independence can be affected by not being able to accomplish daily activities. Additionally, coaches, athletes, and others working in-and-around the sport – need to emphasize safety in the heat for those that have impaired sweating (spinal cord injuries or neurological issues) and monitor for the development of pressure sores.  Having help from experienced and educated, health and exercise professionals is always encouraged for those in sport or general fitness.        

Question:  How can people who are interested in wheelchair basketball get started?  Coaches and players?

Katica:  First, look and search around your community or neighboring cities. Often times there may already be programs that exist of which you may not be aware.  Additionally, reaching out to schools, Veteran Affairs and Warrior Transition Battalions can help you recruit players, but maybe also get some experience working with adapted athletes. A lot of our players on the Tacoma Titans wheelchair basketball team were referred to us from the Warrior Transition Battalion, which is a program that transitions soldiers who were wounded during active duty to civilian life. Adapted sports is a great outlet and way for wounded veterans and people in the community to be a part of a team, interact with people that may be going through similar experiences and a way for everyone to compete. In addition, a lot of people who are interested in adapted sports can receive funding to purchase adapted sports equipment. We have all of our players submit grant proposal to the Challenged Athletes Foundation to help athletes purchase equipment that is fit for their specific dimensions. Some organizations have internal grants players can apply for as well. There is a lot of support out there to help get started in adapted athletics.

We would like to thank Dr. Charlie Katica for his time. 

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Robert L. Herron is a faculty member at the United States Sports Academy.  Robert is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® with distinction from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA-CSCS*D®) and a Clinical Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM-CEP®). rherron@ussa.edu

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