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Practice Plans

Reprinted from SNS January 2017

U.S. Paralympic men's and women's wheelchair basketball players and coaches lay out some of their best drills for your wheelchair basketball team

Christina Schwab is uniquely positioned to be on both ends of the player-coach spectrum.

This past summer, Schwab played on the U.S. Paralympic women’s wheelchair basketball team for the third time, and helped the red, white and blue win the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro — Schwab’s third gold medal after leading the team in 2004 and 2008.

But immediately after the Paralympics, Schwab transitioned from player to full-time coach, taking over one of the nation’s powerhouse programs, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Now, instead of following instructions from a coach, Schwab will be the one delivering the practice plans. Schwab, who has coached at the juniors level before, doesn’t expect much difficulty in the transition.

“I think since I was an athlete at such a high level, I got to experience different coaching methods, helping coach with developmental camps with Team USA,” says Schwab, who’s had a T12/ L1 lesion since birth and has spina bifida. “I get both sides of it, where I know what it takes to get to the highest level. I think I can carry that over into my coaching and try to get these girls that I coach to the highest level they can compete at.”

Developing A Practice Plan

It goes without saying that developing a practice plan is instrumental to the coaching process. As Schwab says, the best drills are the ones that the players hate.

From the player’s perspective, which drills are most efficient?

Steve Serio, a co-captain of the USA men’s wheelchair basketball team, says practices are quite different between Team USA and his club team, the New York Rolling Knicks.

Drills for the U.S. are often team-centered, peppered with 5-on-5 drills because, one, the team doesn’t spend much time together, and two, at the international level, the athletes shouldn’t need to work on individual skills in practice.

“Your individual skills are expected to be at a certain level before practice starts,” Serio says. “(Team USA men’s wheelchair basketball coach Ron Lykins) is very tough on us.”

When Serio is training by himself, though, he works through basic chair skills like the power-stop-and-start, half-court throws, basic bounce stops and spins.

The power-stop-and-start is one of the most standard wheelchair basketball drills, designed to develop the first two pushes needed for set picks and play defense. There’s an emphasis on hand speed, explosiveness off the push, coming to a complete stop and speed of recovery to pushing position. In the two-person drill, one partner lines up on the baseline and the other grabs onto the back of other person’s wheelchair. The person in front takes two pushes and then comes to an immediate stop, doing that baseline-to-baseline.

A drill Schwab likes is 2-on-2-touch-the-spot. Against a teammate, the player defends his or her side of the lane. There’s a ball in the middle, and the player defends and doesn’t let anyone get a touch on the ball.

To teach a proper box-out, Schwab uses a fast-break layup drill she calls Celtic modified. The rebounder passes the ball up the court, and the first person in line defends the second person in line.  Then they box out, grab the rebound and take it back up the court.

Defensive Drills

Everyone loves offense, but championship teams are built on defense. Few know that more than University of Illinois and Team USA women’s wheelchair basketball coach Stephanie Wheeler. 

Wheeler, who’s from Norlina, N.C., sustained a T10 spinal-cord injury at age 6 as a backseat passenger in a car accident.

As a defensive-minded coach, her favorite drill is a 1-on-1 shadow drill. As one player pushes up and down the court baseline-to-baseline, the other must keep him or her in front, almost mimicking what the other player is doing. You never want to turn toward the player you’re defending, you want to keep the player between you and the basket.

“You can’t be a great team defensively unless you have great individual defenders,” Wheeler says.

This was also Wheeler’s favorite drill as a player.

“I was one of those players, I knew that was where my strength was and I’d have the biggest impact on the game,” Wheeler says. “Players love scrimmaging and just playing. I don’t think I was any different, and there’s value to that. But I liked playing some one-on-one shadow full-court.”

From there, Wheeler likes a 4-on-4 half-court drill. 

“If there are moments in time you don’t have enough to go five-on-five, or working on specific defensive principles, I pull that out of the bag,” Wheeler says. “A lot of our defensive one-on-ones build up to what will eventually be our five-on-five principles.”

There’s also a lot to get out of 2-on-2 shadow drills, which can add the element of picks, requiring communication between the defenders.

“We talk about defense being the foundation,” Wheeler says. “We run some two-on-two offensive drills and working on our fundamentals with and without the ball. Pick and roll, off-the-ball work, on different sized courts.”

As a child, Serio, who grew up in Westbury, N.Y. , was misdiagnosed with a spinal tumor and it became infected. He works on his shot a couple times a week to keep that area of his game sharp.

“The fundamental skills learned in juniors and college, I still do those to this day,” says Serio, who recently moved back to the U.S. after three seasons with RSV Lahn-Dill in Germany.

Instead of practicing five days a week with a professional team, his new team, the Rolling Knicks, is a recreational team that only practices once a week.

Schwab also stresses working on explosiveness. 

“We do some backward tows, make sure we’re balancing our tows and back. Anything that’s with resistance and repetitiveness, anything that can get your heart racing, that helps with your conditioning,” Schwab says. “We want to make sure our girls are well-conditioned going into games so they last the whole 40 minutes.”

Schwab would know about conditioning. In between her second and third gold medals in basketball, she skipped out on basketball to compete in the women’s wheelchair marathon in the 2008 and
2012 Paralympics. 

Incorporating Everything

Lykins, the University of Missouri and USA men’s wheelchair basketball coach, wants the drills he uses in practice to incorporate three things: passing, shooting and pushing.

“It makes us much more efficient with our time,” Lykins says. “Challenging, but emphasis on proper execution, not so much the result. I want to make sure we’re doing this correctly. Then, as you learn it, it becomes muscle memory and second nature.”

Lykins has a bit different persepective from Schwab and Wheeler: He’s not in a wheelchair. In a broad sense, Lykins says the same approach to team and individual practice drills are the same, whether the player is standing up or in a wheelchair. 

“The passing’s the same, the fundamentals are the same,” Lykins says. “With a baseball pass, you don’t have to teach the lower body the timing of that … We don’t have the legs at all for a jump shot. How do you get power is a question we ask. But the mechanics of the shots are still the same.”


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