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Winning is the only thing unless it's not
Steve Goldberg's Wheel World
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Winning is the only thing unless it's not

CHARLOTTE (Steve Goldberg's Wheel World) - The world championship rosters are finalized and there's a lot of basketball being played these days, games that mean nothing and everything at the same time.

Last week, you would find the Netherlands women's wheelchair basketball team in Colorado for a series of games with the USA and Australia. This week they are in Sheffield, England where, along with the Dutch, Great Britain is hosting the women's teams from Canada, Japan, and Germany, as well as the men's teams from Canada, Japan, Netherlands, Poland, and Spain.

They're calling it the Continental Clash.

I heard from GB's women's coach Miles Thompson just before his team would take the court and win their first game against Japan.

"No one remembers who won what summer friendly," he said. "There is no legacy. Then again, it’s important to practice winning."

So, while winning these tune-up games is not of consequence, the habit of knowing how to win is.

This is something Thompson has been working on since taking over responsibility for the British women's program just over four years ago. The GB women had never reached the level that had become traditional for the men but that's been changing.

After a 6th place finish in the 2010 Worlds at home in Birmingham, they went 7th in the 2012 London Paralympics and matched that in the 2015 Worlds in Toronto. That changed dramatically in Rio with their highest-ever placement, just off the podium in 4th.

No one remembers who won what summer friendly. There is no legacy. Then again, it’s important to practice winning.Miles Thompson, Head Coach Great Britain Women's Wheelchair Basketball Team

 They are learning how to win but these games are more about finding the right mix, the right chemistry in different situations.

"We look if teams can stop us when we’re at our strength. We must constantly build during the summer friendlies."

One thing Thompson has learned and wants to further ingrain is, "When we play without fear and attention to detail, we are as good as there is."

Marc Antoine Ducharme, coach of the Canadian women's team, concurs. "The first thing we look for in these games is to create chemistry in our different lineups. We want to see if our tactics work against different teams and make adjustments if needed."

"Winning is not the most important thing. We select some games to give experience to our new players, to play different lineups and see how that goes and try different tactical (approaches)."

Like Thompson, he understands the psychology of winning. "We select some game to win too, so it important to win this game or play well and give 100% in that kind of game to build our confidence for the world championships." 

He says that his team is young with only six on the roster from the Rio squad. They will seem old compared with a side that will be almost completely different from two years ago.

When I look at the rosters of the usual suspects who will compete for the women's hardware, I see a lot of familiar names from Paralympic play. Not so much with the American squad which will feature only two veterans of the Rio gold medal run.

The U.S. team is so young at the moment, it feels like a junior team. The average age is 18.5 years old.

This world championship will be competitive test kitchen for the Americans that Toronto and Rio were for the Brits. Whether more veterans are on the team when Tokyo rolls around is an unknown but what is certain is that an experienced pool for elite players will be much richer.

USA coach Trooper Johnson has named Shelby Gruss and Morgan Wood as captains. As the two oldest players on the team at 24 and 26 respectively, additional leadership is sure to come from gold medalists Rose Hollermann and Abbie Dunkin, teammates of Wood at the University of Texas-Arlington.

Though the American women are the defending Paralympic champions, they won't be the favorites in Hamburg. Those would have to be hosts Germany along with Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and the Netherlands who, along with their experience, also benefit from far more extended training as a group.

This is nothing new as the NWBA has traditionally worked with more limited resources. Still, the women have won three of the last four Paralympics as well as the 2010 World title, while the USA men have always been a top four side but have only regained Paralympic gold in 2016 after a 28 year drought.

USA coach Trooper Johnson talks to his team during a break in action. (Photo courtesy of the NWBA)

"Most of our training is considered "decentralized", wrote Johnson in an online post, "in the fact that we are only together one week a month. The rest of the top teams we will be facing are in residential, or semi-residential programs within their training centers."

"Most of the top-tier teams will have played 25-30 games together prior to the World Championships, and coming into (last) weekend, both opponents had played over 15 games already." 

That goes for the American men as well, but they will benefit from having 10 Rio gold medalists on the roster.

In their tune-up games last weekend, the USA women grew from match to match, losing them all before ending on a win over Australia.

It was the first win for the team this year and Johnson said it, "allowed them to see the potential they have when they work together and apply themselves for a full 40 minutes."

He then added, "We still need to figure out Holland."

He will get additional opportunity to do that on the way to Hamburg when his team will stop in the Netherlands for some tune-up games.

By that time, learning how to win will be a much great priority.

Steve Goldberg


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Steve Goldberg

Steve Goldberg

Eight years after first getting a glimpse of wheelchair basketball at the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul when covering the Olympics for UPI, Steve Goldberg got the chance to really understand the game as Chief Press Officer for the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta. He's been a follower of the sport ever since. Over the years, the North Carolina-born and bred Tar Heel fan - but University of Georgia grad - has written on business, the economy, sports, and people for media including Time, USA Today, New York magazine, Reuters, Universal Sports, TNT, ESPN, New York Daily News, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Olympian. Steve Goldberg's Wheel World will look at the past, present and future of wheelchair basketball.