Sports and life: Soldiers learn to adapt
October 18, 2012
An injury in the military can be a real game changer for a Soldier.
But learning to adapt and cope, Warriors in transition are playing on a whole new court and lighting up the scoreboards.
Tires squeaked on the polished wood floor as Soldiers called out to teammates.
Players maneuvered elbows and hands to block passes and metal chairs to block opponents.
At one end of the court two wheels locked up -- shiny metal scraping in the scramble. The Soldiers gripping at the hand rails smiled as each viciously struggled to break away.
Then the whistle blew and the Soldiers rolled to a halt.
The adaptive sport of wheelchair basketball is anything but easy, said Staff Sgt. Steven Williams, Alpha Co. Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Bliss, a combat veteran with lower back and knee injuries.
As Soldiers huff and puff using their arms and core strength to shuttle metal chairs up and down a regulation-sized basketball court, Williams notes that the real strength of the game is just playing.
"When you're injured (in the military) you feel like you'll never be part of a team or in the fight again. But here, we are part of a team," he said.
Williams is one of 10 members of the WTB's wheelchair basketball team -- an adaptive sports program that evolved into a competitive team for local and regional tournaments. The group plays an El Paso recreation league team at the University of Texas at El Paso on Oct. 11 and is set to participate in a wheelchair basketball tournament in San Antonio Oct. 19-21.
From aquatics and archery to air guns and cycling, the WTB adaptive sports program is designed to offer Soldiers an alternative to the routine running and pushup exercises associated with military fitness.
"As a physical therapist I don't believe in sports in place of strength and conditioning exercises," said Chris Obrock, adaptive sports coordinator and physical therapy assistant at the Fort Bliss WTB.
"But it's a cyclical effect. The Soldiers started their own strength-training routines. Soldiers doing airguns started lifting weights to improve their arm strength. For wheelchair basketball they practice for two hours and come out of here soaked in sweat. It really gets them motivated and enjoying participating in something."
A March 2012 article in the Journal of Sport Behavior, published out of the University of South Alabama, explored psychological skills attained from playing sports and those needed for combating effects of post traumatic stress disorder in Stryker Brigade Soldiers.
Researchers, including from the Army Nursing Research Service at Madigan Army Medical Center and the Center for Enhanced Performance at the United States Military Academy, found that skills associated with playing on sports teams -- planning, preparation, management of energy, fear of failure and focus -- appear to provide some degree of protection against combat-related behavioral health issues.
The article supports a finding that sport-related psychological skills are relevant beyond the ball game.
"It is good for morale as long as there's communication," said Sgt. Maximiliano Mejia, A Co. WTB, as his teammates wrestled with the reminders to call out "taking the shot" before every basket attempt.
Mejia has been at the WTB since 2010 and he admits to not getting out much socially.
"One of my therapists said just do this (play in a sport) little step by little step," said Mejia, who earlier this year placed third in three swimming events at the Texas Regional Games -- an annual event put on by the U.S. Paralympics Committee for "other abled" athletes within the military community.
The Army's Warrior Transition Command has funded equipment and the Fort Bliss WTB has funded sending Soldiers to clinics and trainings targeting adaptive sports mirroring those offered in the Warrior Games -- an annual competition among the military branches and their Wounded Warriors.
Pushing the sport aspect of healing for wounded, ill and injured Soldiers, Obrock said the WTBs are also mimicking a very important aspect of military life -- camaraderie.
"The difficulty with the WTB is getting Soldiers from all types of units here where officers and enlisted are mixed together. It is things like this (sports) that the lines become blurred and things just start working together. And they need that. It's an atmosphere that the military breeds. So to recreate that here is important," Obrock said.
Back on the court, Soldiers -- their mobile feet strapped to metal edges -- pumped their gliding five-wheeled chairs into a makeshift huddle.
From their seated positions, they glanced up at the towering baskets and visualized game plans. In the awkward circle the players exchanged barbs about shooting styles and passing techniques.
"You can see it on their faces," Williams said. "They're really enjoying this."