The athletes wait on the court. With their power chairs charged and their fingers on the joysticks, they are poised and ready to take their shot.
A teammate positions himself next to the oversized soccer ball just so. Then he spins full speed, 360 degrees, and strikes the ball with a “thump” that sends it far down the court. Another teammate surges past a defender and hits the ball with her front chair guard, shooting it through the goal posts, just inches beyond the reach of the goalie’s chair.
This is power soccer. And it’s much more than just another game.
A Passion for the Sport
In the 11 years or so that Tony Jackson, 43, has been involved with power soccer, he’s been a player, a coach and an internet broadcaster.
He’s passionate about power soccer, but he didn’t always feel this way. He wasn’t even interested when he first learned about the sport. “I didn’t think it was competitive,” says Jackson, who has arthrogryposis and lives in Phoenix, Arizona. “I wanted high-level competition, and my perception of adaptive sports at the time was that they were not challenging.”
Then someone shared a highlight video of the 2007 Power Soccer World Cup with him. “Wow, this is really, really cool,” he remembers thinking. “These players are driving their chairs in ways I’ve only ever dreamed — they are whipping them around, hitting the ball.”
When he finally started playing, he realized how intense the sport is for both body and mind. “It takes a lot of energy to compete,” he says. “Mentally it’s draining and physically you can get a little sore because that chair is moving at a rapid rate. It’s taxing.”
Ryan Kenneally, 38, who has Becker muscular dystrophy and lives in Portland, Oregon, had a similar experience. “I showed up to a practice and watched other people in wheelchairs just like me out there moving this ball,” he says. “Seeing those other athletes who had way more severe disabilities than mine out there on the court kicking people’s butts right and left? That blew my mind.”
Kenneally realized power soccer was something he wanted to try. “When I had a chance to do it, I was hooked on it, and I’ve never stopped,” he says. Now he’s a coach as well as a player.
It’s not just the athletes who get hooked. Karen and Dominic Russo have two kids, Natalie and JC, who first played power soccer at a Muscular Dystrophy Association summer camp in the early 2000s. When they found out there wasn’t a program where they lived in Indiana, they started one so their children could keep playing.
“The kids felt passionate about it so Karen organized the first clinic,” says Dominic.
“When we realized what it is all about, we got behind it 100%,” adds Karen. And now? “We eat, live and breathe power soccer,” she laughs.
She’s not kidding. Their daughter, Natalie, won six national championships and played on the 2007 and 2017 U.S. National Teams, while their son, JC, won four national championships and played on the 2007 and 2011 U.S. National teams. Together the family runs the Power Soccer Development Group, a volunteer-run nonprofit dedicated to starting programs across the U.S. and around the world.
The First Sport for Power Chair Users
Power soccer was the first competitive team sport designed for athletes who use power chairs and has been around since the 1970s. There were four major variations of the game across the globe until 2006, when several nations came together and standardized the rules and equipment, which allowed for international play.
Today the rules and structure of power soccer are similar to nondisabled soccer and there are teams for all levels of competitors, from recreational up to international.
The sport is played on an indoor basketball court, and each team fields four players — three fielders and one goalie. Offensive players use the bumpers on their chairs to control and strike the ball to score goals while defensive players use theirs to prevent goals against their side.
To ensure the competition is between the athletes and not their equipment, players must keep their top speed capped at 6.1 mph. But they are permitted to spin their chairs as fast as they can. Why is this a benefit in competition? Spin power!
“Everyone has their own technique, but some of us are really able to strike the ball with a lot of force,” says Jackson. “Some players can hit the ball as fast as 35 or 40 mph.”
Like all competitive sports, elite level play doesn’t just happen. Athletes need to put in the work to gain the skills to compete at a high level.
“It took easily a year for me to be able to learn to control the chair and hit the ball where I wanted it to go,” says Kenneally. “It’s definitely a skill that is gained over time. It takes quite a bit of practice. ”
“It’s very skilled,” agrees Karen, “and there is a place for people of all levels, whether you want to play recreationally or travel the world and play for your country. There is a place for everybody.”
The teams can be made up of a diverse group of power chair users. So who can play power soccer? “As long as you can drive a power wheelchair you can play,” says Jackson.
Teams are composed of athletes of all genders, with all sorts of disabilities and of all ages from 6 to … well, there is no upper age limit. “I have a guy I coach who is in his 70s, and this is his first team sport ever,” says Jackson. “He’s super-thrilled about it. He loves it.”
It’s About Independence
Sure, power soccer is a fun game to play, being both strategic and fast-paced. But what is it about power soccer that inspires such commitment?
For Jackson, it’s about independence. “A lot of us who play power soccer have a severe disability, and the vast majority of us need help to live,” he says. “But once we’re strapped into the power chair and ready to go, we don’t need help anymore. It’s very liberating for a lot of people and provides a great deal of independence.”
For Kenneally, it’s the camaraderie. “The whole experience of being part of a group of people with similar disabilities connected with me,” he says. “Prior to power soccer I didn’t really involve myself in the disabled community. The community side was huge for me — it was one of the things that got me hooked into the sport.
When Kenneally joined a traveling team, he learned from his fellow athletes that the world holds more possibilities than he ever imagined.
“Traveling and playing other teams — that experience is what really drove it home,” he says. “The abilities these different athletes had outside of power soccer blew my mind. They were going to four-year colleges and one was in law school.”
Kenneally continues, “Seeing the lives of other people in the disabled community opened up my eyes to the fact that anything is possible. It doesn’t matter that I use a wheelchair — I can still achieve goals in life, be successful, have a job, go to college. A wheelchair doesn’t define me as a person at all.”
A New Generation
Bipedal soccer is a cultural touchstone for so many kids in the U.S., and power soccer allows kids who use power chairs to have the same experiences as their nondisabled friends.
“This is an opportunity for your child to play sports like all the other kids their age,” says coach and player Tony Jackson. “Being in that team environment and learning how to work with other people is a really important part of growing up. And also, learning how to fail — that’s a big part of being able to just handle life — and how to work with other people who might not think like you. Figuring out how to do these things as a group is something that people with disabilities often miss out on.”
Karen and Dominic Russo’s two children showed their parents they could be independent when they began playing power soccer. Now the Russos help other families experience this same lesson. “When parents see their kids out on the court for the first time playing the game and scoring their own goals, they see the value,” says Karen.
And, like nondisabled soccer, it’s a relatively safe sport.
“It’s not rugby — people aren’t bashing into each other. It’s really a safe sport, regulated well by the referees,” says Dominic
The U.S. Power Soccer Association website allows you to search for teams in your area. Not all recreational teams are listed there, so if you don’t find one, give your local adaptive recreation group a call to see if they know of any.
If there isn’t a program close by, your local adaptive recreation group may be able to help you start one, or at least support your efforts. You can also contact the USPSA’s regional director for your area, or the Power Soccer Development Group to get a clinic held in your community, which they’ll often do for little or no charge.
To play power soccer, you need chairs with front guards, a power soccer ball, an indoor court and some pylons, or other vertical structures, for goals on both ends of the court. Power soccer chairs for competitive leagues can be quite expensive, but many recreational players use their everyday chairs and low-tech solutions when they start out.
Ryan Kenneally has been developing a new team for the last four years. It’s a recreational team now, with aspirations of becoming a competitive traveling team in the future. “In the very beginning we started out with everyone using their everyday chairs. We were literally using milk crates on the front as guards,” he says. Today his team has a group of dedicated power soccer chairs with custom metal guards on them. They built their fleet with donations, grants and fundraisers.
What’s Kenneally’s advice for newbies? “You need to start out with baby steps and work your way up,” he says. “You can start out with your everyday chair and then begin thinking about opportunities to get a dedicated chair. You need to learn practical skills first. Don’t stress about the entry barriers.”
Tony Jackson waited a few years to play after he heard about the sport. But once he got into it, he began traveling the country and the world playing, coaching and broadcasting the sport. His advice? “Don’t wait as long as I did. If you have an opportunity, go out and do it. Power soccer has opened up so many opportunities that I never thought of pursuing. It’s really altered what I’m doing with my life. I don’t even know what I’d be doing if I didn’t have power soccer.”
** This post was originally published on https://www.newmobility.com/2020/03/the-rise-of-power-soccer/