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Aim Low, Throw Hard

Reprinted from SNS January 2019

Recreational dodgeball is a hit with wheelchair athletes

For some people, dodgeball may conjure images of their school playground or gym classes and being pelted by hard rubber projectiles. But dodgeball is making its way off the playground and finding new life in adaptive sports programs.

Spanning from Texas all the way into Canada, the sport has gained some ground as an unusual addition to keep wheelchair athletes active, engaged and teach them valuable new skills. Even better, it gives them an activity they can do with their family and friends. 

While wheelchair dodgeball hasn’t quite caught on outside of recreational settings in the U.S., that hasn’t stopped some smaller adaptive programs from organizing games and proving that dodgeball isn’t just the subject of the comedy movie DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story starring Ben Stiller. It’s also a lot of fun.

Staying Active

One of those programs is the South Plains Adaptive Recreation Club started by Heather Beaugh, an outpatient occupational therapist, and other therapists from the South Plains Rehabilitation Center (SPRC) in Lubbock, Texas.

Beaugh started the program three years ago after she realized there weren’t many local community resources for wheelchair users to interact with a peer group and stay active.

“I came up with dodgeball because I thought it would be family-friendly, something that different ability levels could do, something that wouldn’t be too expensive,” Beaugh says. “I’m not athletic, so I think if I were a wheelchair user, I would be intimidated if it was wheelchair basketball or soccer. So, I think to me, wheelchair dodgeball is not intimidating and something everyone can participate in. And usually if I’m seeing them for therapy, it’s a relatively new injury, and it’s good to throw things. It’s good to take some aggression out if you’re going through that big of a life change.”

The club meets the second Saturday of each month and plays on an indoor soccer field at Texas Tech University’s student recreation center in Lubbock. The games are free for participants and their families thanks to the club’s community partners.

The players represent a mixture of mobility levels and impairments, including spinal-cord injuries (SCI), multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, amputations and brain injuries, and they play in their everyday manual or power wheelchairs or in wheelchair basketball chairs.

 On a typical weekend, there are 16 to 20 players. The club provides loaner wheelchairs for ambulatory volunteers, friends or family members who want to participate.

The club uses 20 to 25 soft foam balls of varying sizes, which are placed at intervals along the center line. A whistle is blown and there’s an opening rush to the center line to pick up balls and pass a few to teammates who may not have the range of motion to reach down for a ball. Players must move out of the neutral zone before they’re allowed to throw the ball.

“So they’re kind of keeping an eye out, after they get those balls back, when can they stop and pick up a ball and when do they have to be on the defensive?” Beaugh says. “You’re being strategic about when do you want to stop and pick up a ball and when’s a good time to throw it.”

The wheelchair is considered part of the player’s body, so if the ball hits the chair, the player is out of the game and can only come back in if a player on his or her team catches a ball thrown by someone on the opposing team. If the ball hits the player’s head or bounces on the ground before it hits the player, the player isn’t considered out. The first team to eliminate all the other team’s players wins.

While able-bodied family members sometimes play in loaner wheelchairs, they also play a version called “playing with a medic.” 

“They stand on the perimeter, so typically if you get hit once, you’re out. But if we play with a medic, if you get hit once and if you go and tag the medic, it gives you a second life,” Beaugh says. 

For players like Michael Reyna, dodgeball is more about having fun and less about competition.

The 31-year-old Lubbock resident sustained a T11/12 complete SCI and had a T9–L2 spinal fusion in June 2015 after a drunk driver crashed into his bedroom. 

Reyna met Beaugh while he was in outpatient rehab at SPRC and has been playing wheelchair dodgeball since 2016. He likes playing dodgeball with his oldest son, 8-year-old Michael Jr., or MJ for short.

“To see my family go out and see me do things, that’s pretty neat,” Reyna says. “And to see my boy, MJ, to see him, me look at his face when I’m throwing the ball and catching it, and he comes up and says, ‘Oh, that was a good catch.’ It’s pretty neat when they see you do things and they want to help, too.”

Reyna says his strategy is to hang back and save his energy, letting others hurry and get to the balls first. As for technique, Reyna tries to pick up two balls at a time, then places one next to each hip and holds a third ball, swapping it back and forth from hand to hand as he pushes his chair.

“I usually go for the feet, the legs,” he says. “It’s a little bit harder [because] we don’t have as good of balance as an able-bodied person does, so to bend down and try to catch it and come back up is tough.”

In addition to exercise and increased independence, Reyna enjoys the camaraderie between the players.

“You get other guys out there, they may have a spinal-cord injury or some kind of disability and it just feels good that there’s other people in my situation or a different situation that we’re able to be active, and it’s not just in the chair all day,” he says. “You can throw the ball and be a little bit more competitive.”


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Aim Low, Throw Hard


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