RAW Coaches: Stephanie Wheeler

I am Stephanie Wheeler, currently the head coach for the women’s wheelchair basketball team at the University of Illinois.  I began my coaching career at Illinois in 2009.  In 2011, I was named the head coach for the USA U25 Women’s National Team which competed in the first U25 World Championships in St. Catherines, Canada.  In 2013, I was named the head coach for the USA Senior Women’s National Team and held that position through the conclusion of the Rio Paralympic Games.

I actually began coaching during my time as a student-athlete at the University of Illinois.  We host summer camps for middle and high school students, and when you are a student-athlete in our program, you are coaches at that camp.  I realized that I really liked teaching the game and seeing improvement in the athletes during camp.  During that time, my university coach, Mike Frogley, also saw that I was a good teacher and enjoyed coaching.  He began taking me to camps across the country and around the world to help me learn and grow as a coach.  From that time on, I knew I wanted to coach.

I was a basketball junkie growing up, so there were definitely coaches that I admired.  The first two were Sylvia Hatchell, who was the women’s basketball coach at the University of North Carolina, and Pat Summitt, who was the women’s basketball head coach at the University of Tennessee.  Those first two coaches were from the able-bodied world because at the time, I had never seen or met anyone who played or coached wheelchair basketball.  Once I became more involved in wheelchair basketball, I met Deb Sunderman, who was a phenomenal player and had been the head coach for our national team.  She was the first female coach I met as a young wheelchair basketball player, so the first coach I’d ever seen who looked like me.  However, the coach that has had the most profound effect on me as a person, athlete, and coach is Mike Frogley.  He changed my life when he recruited me to play at the University of Illinois.  The lessons I learned from him as his athlete and as his coaching peer drive and influence how I coach to this day.

I coach using the decision training model of coaching.  What this does is that in conjunction with teaching the basic technical skills of wheelchair basketball (chair movement, shooting, passing, ball handling, etc), I train my student-athletes to be self-reflective, self-reliant, and to make their own decisions on court.  This leads to the student-athletes being better trained and prepared for the decisions required to ensure great performances during games.  Basically, I’m trying to develop the student-athletes critical thinking skills.  In this model, a great deal of my feedback to the student-athletes comes in the form of questioning, rather than telling them what they should do.  There are other aspects of this teaching model that go more in depth, but those are the basics.

I believe this approach is effective because it empowers the student-athletes to make decisions on court based on what cues they are seeing, so it makes them more adaptable.  That’s important in wheelchair basketball because the game moves and changes so quickly.  By the time our student-athletes look to me on the bench for what to do, the read has changed, so it’s important that they can make those decisions on their own.  It also allows them to be creative with their offensive and defensive reads, so that when the other team takes away certain reads or does something different than what is in the scouting report, they can figure out how to adapt. My approach doesn’t sway depending on the situation.  I believe it’s our job as coaches to develop our athletes for their long term careers.  I would be doing them a disservice if I changed how I coached them, depending on the situation.  Plus, what greater teacher is there than a pressure packed game where decisions have to be made under extreme pressure?

My coaching philosophy centers on creating the culture where each student-athlete in our program see and feel that they bring value to our team, our program, our university, and our society.  So often, girls and women with disabilities live on the margins of a society that judges them because they have a disability and because they are women/girls (and any other marginalized identity they bring to the table). Therefore, I use wheelchair basketball as the vehicle to show them that nothing is further from the truth.  Who each of them are is important, and we are at our best as a team when each of them brings their whole self to the table.  Additionally, an important part of my philosophy is that I bring all of who I am to my coaching.  I can’t be at my best for my student-athletes if I hide parts of who I or I am not vulnerable with them. As I’ve grown to further understand the challenges that impact our female student-athletes on a daily basis, I’ve evolved my coaching philosophy to address those challenges.  That evolution comes out of understanding and valuing what our current generation of student-athletes need from me to be as successful as they can be.

I think decision training is the perfect way to ensure each student-athlete that their voice and abilities matter.  They get the opportunity to decide on court how we will attack or defend, based on what they see and know.  I also do quite a bit of coaching character skills.  As coaches, we all want student-athletes who have great character, so it’s important that we teach them those skills.  At times, I will embed drills into our practices or team building activities that teach trust, resilience, courage, or any other character skill we deem valuable for them to be successful people first, and successful athletes second.  Through these drills or activities, I am very specific with exactly what each character skill looks like in action, so that it becomes a tangible behavior they can execute, rather than an ambiguous or abstract concept.

I actually start building relationships with our student-athletes during the recruiting process.  I am intentional in how I go about the recruiting process so that the student-athletes know that I don’t want them here just because they are a wheelchair basketball player.  I want them to all know that our program staff values who they are as a person first.  I am also intentional about I get to know each student-athlete once they are on campus too.  I ask a lot of questions about who they are, and pay close attention to what makes them tick, which allows me to tailor my coaching to what best fits their needs.  I also am quite vulnerable with my team.  I share with them my successes, but I am also not afraid to admit when I’ve failed (and subsequently how I’ve recovered), gotten it wrong or when I need help.  It’s really important to me that they see that I’m a real person.

It was initially a challenge to go from being close friends and former teammates with some of the athletes to their coach (a perceived authority figure). When I was with the national team, I had a policy that defined the difference between “team time” and “personal time”.  I had conversations with those athletes that made it clear that I was their coach during “team time” but that we could choose to spend our “personal time” however we wanted.  It was also made clear that whatever happened in “team time” didn’t impact or sway decision making in “personal time” and vice versa.

I think the most challenging experience I encountered as a coach was when I was coaching the national team and my college team at the same time.  I wanted to give my best to each team and my family, and at times I felt like I couldn’t do it all.  I would also say that anytime our student-athletes are going through major life events or difficult situations, it’s always challenging.  You support the student-athlete the best that you can, knowing that you can’t fix the situation for them or make it better.

I’m not sure if I can narrow down the most rewarding experience I’ve had as a coach.  Each time I see our student-athletes graduate is a special moment.  We get to be a part of their lives during such a unique time of growth and learning, so to see the young women they have become when they graduate is pretty special.  I would also say that there are moments in each student-athlete when you see the light bulb come on as they finally “get” a particular skill or tactical read that they have been working so hard on.  It’s those moments that light me up and fuels my fire for coaching.

For me, coaching the national team didn’t differ much from coaching my college team.  The way I teach and my coaching philosophy are at the core of who I am and drive how I coach, so it would be impossible for me to change.  I still focused on creating relationships with each athlete. The level of technical and tactical skills I could teach were at a higher level, but I still taught.  The biggest difference for me is that at the elite level, ultimately, your goal is to win a gold medal at the Paralympics.  That tends to drive decision making a bit differently than our goals with my college program, which center on holistic long term student-athlete development.

I’d like to leave a legacy of empowered, self-determining female student-athletes who fully believe that they bring value to our team, program, and society at large by being their true, authentic selves.  I’d also like to leave a legacy of student athletes who give back to the sport of wheelchair basketball in some way that is meaningful to them.  If I can do those two things, I will have had a successful career.

Moving forward, I’m currently finishing up my doctoral studies in Cultural Kinesiology.  In the future, I’d like to use the knowledge I’ve acquired from my degree field, but also from my personal experiences to consult on creating inclusive spaces, whether they be sports teams, office teams, etc.  I’d also like to share what I’ve learned with female student-athletes and young female coaches as a coach educator, so that our female student-athletes know that coaching is a viable career field for them.

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