The single greatest challenge of playing a team adaptive sport is the balance of power. In a nutshell, wheelchair rugby is a game of mismatches; based on how much function you have, you’re assigned a class number (0.5 to 3.5), and out of your total starting line, those four players are capped at 8 points.
3.0 and 3.5 players, the all-stars and high-pointers of the league are overwhelmingly dominant in their skills and physical ability. Strong core, higher blood pressure, intercostal lung function, and powerful stabilizing muscles allow them to have a highlight reel every play of the game. They often carry the brunt of their team’s performance out of necessity; to play a 3.5, a team must also play a low-point player like a 0.5 or 1.0 to insure enough point allocation for the remaining teammates.
Low-point players are bulldogs. The most successful ones are often the toughest players on the court. Although their significant muscle imbalances and lack of function regulates them to fewer roles or responsibilities, they pour their heart and soul into their job. They’re perfectionists. They make up for their lack of power through thousands of hours of training and drilling the same blocking routes into their head. Imagine the value of a fullback who never strays from his path. Not once, not ever. The best low-pointers not only enable their high-pointers to enter the court, they increase their defensive and offensive potential many times over.
As a 2.0 mid-pointer, I have the function to be adept at all the skills required to be a well-rounded player, but a small enough point allocation to allow a more even spread of firepower. We’re glue guys. The ability to effectively move the ball out of trouble greatly reduces the burden of our high-pointers. The best 2.0’s will demand respect and draw defensive mismatches, allowing other teammates to succeed offensively.
Quadriplegics love wheelchair rugby not only because of the opportunity to showcase our strength and athleticism, we love it because it reminds us of our roots: nobody makes it out alive on their own. A high-pointer must put faith in a low-pointer to have the courage to meet their assignment, no matter how daunting. A mid-pointer must have the guts to go head to head with a high-pointer for the sake of his teammates’ success. We win or lose together.
My teammate Kory Puderbaugh taught me many lessons in guts. Kory is a Paralympian and 3.0 class player. His tremendous core strength and brutal training regimen has resulted in his dominance as one of the most explosive players in the entire world. His limitless youthful energy has been refined with a calculating and ruthless intellectual game capable of shutting down entire halves of the court.
You can’t hesitate against Kory. I’ve played against him constantly in scrimmages. By the time the ball is in my hands, Kory is already wheel to wheel and looking for vulnerabilities in my ball protection. If its seven seconds and I don’t have options to move the ball I know I’m in trouble. His hand speed is good enough to seamlessly transition from pass to chair defense. Players like Kory are all over our league, as well as internationally. They push the expectations of players and demand a higher level of play just to be competitive. As a mid-pointer, learning to play at this level becomes very much about guts.
“What’s more important than your athletic ability is your mindset.” –Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
In our beloved game of mismatches, you’re expected to perform against those who are inherently stronger, faster, and more functional. As the only even metric between players, the proper mentality is paramount to survival.
You learn to be alert. Know where your teammates are before you get the ball. Create space so your low-pointer can limit the opponent’s options. Always look for the pass first; drawing the high-pointer guarantees a mismatch somewhere else and will definitely end up in a score.
You learn to have guts. Sometimes you can’t avoid the hit and you need to meet the opponent head on. Don’t close your eyes, hold on to the ball, and have the clarity to have evaluated your options. Just because you’re outmanned doesn’t mean you have to give up the physical battle. Diligent and rigorous training can buy you a lot of opportunity. A half-second quicker pass or extra two pushes can save you from a disastrous situation. Even if you can’t win outright, train yourself to combat the challenge. Don’t let yourself or your teammates down.
Wheelchair rugby isn’t about creating heroes—it’s about creating community. Kory recently told me, “It’s not about how many points a player scores, it’s about playing as a team to win the game.” I couldn’t agree more. Everything we do, every hour we train, every game we play is not only for ourselves, but also a testament to our community. In a game of mismatches and power imbalance, we choose to celebrate that and band together. It’s about a team giving their best to play as one.