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How wheelchair basketball brings out the best in Phil Pratt

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Phil Pratt will be at the Paralympics in Paris later this year, but it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the highlight of his summer could have been playing at Wimbledon.

He is the man who captained Great Britain’s wheelchair basketball team to World Championship glory in 2018.

The 30-year-old Cardiff-born and raised athlete returned to the World Championships last year, where GB were runners-up, and he will be there again at the Paralympics in August.

But had life taken a different turn then his wheelchair could have been rolling out across the green lawns of Wimbledon in July, instead.

Phil may have had to learn his sporting skills from a sitting position since he was a small child, but that did not prevent him from trying a variety of sports.

“Back in the day when I was a kid, I tried loads of different sports – wheelchair tennis, wheelchair racing, sledge hockey, all kinds of different stuff,” he says.

“Wheelchair tennis was the first serious one for me. I had decent hand-eye coordination and I put a lot of hours into it.

“I can’t remember which for sure, but I got to either ranked second or third in the world for U18s. I was pretty good at it.”

Pretty good, but not good enough to overcome one big drawback. He didn’t like it.

Preference for team sport

“I didn’t enjoy it, really. You’re on your own with your coach and you’re doing the same limited number of drills.

“I think you have to really enjoy a sport to give it everything and I just found I got a lot more out of wheelchair basketball, which I was doing then as a side hobby.”

It wasn’t long before the sideshow became the main event.

As a team sport, he saw something in wheelchair basketball that had hooked him into watching football, a passion he still retains through his love for Cardiff City.

“I think I preferred the variety of basketball compared to tennis. You still do some drills, but the output is different in that no play is ever exactly the same as the last.

“I also liked the team aspect, compared to tennis. In basketball, you have to get the best out of not just yourself, but your teammates and your coach. It just felt like there was a lot more to it.”

Phil Pratt, playing for Great Britain, holds the ball and contends with two defenders.
Image: British Wheelchair Basketball

Overcoming anxiety

Phil believes sport has given him a route out of the frustrations he felt in his younger days, lessening his anxiety, building his confidence, and enabling him to form lasting friendships.

“I was a bit anti-social when I was young and it’s only now, through working with sports psychologists, that I’ve realised I suffered from quite a lot of anxiety when I was a kid.

“When you’re in a wheelchair, you are always having to figure things out for yourself and worrying about outcomes.

“Can I get up those stairs? Can I go to this party? How can I join in when my mates are playing football?

“You can feel anxious, so being with a team, forcing myself almost, to have relationships with other people, day-to-day, helped me overcome those social anxieties.”

Phil says his tennis background gave him a specific transferable skill into wheelchair basketball that he is really grateful for – his movement in the chair.

Fluid mover

“People tell me I move in my chair in a different way to 99 per cent of wheelchair basketball players. It gave me an ability to be fluid in my movement.

“If you look at someone like Alfie Hewitt in wheelchair tennis, he’s incredibly quick, but there’s also a lot of fluency. 

“Your average wheelchair basketball player is a lot more . . . brutal, maybe is the word. I’m a bit more fluent and that has given me a point of difference.”

Since his switch – and the blending of those transferable skills – Phil has gone on to captain GB to a world crown and was a bronze medallist at the Rio 2016 Paralympics.

He currently plays in Spain – where wheelchair basketball is huge – for Amiab Albacete, the current European champions.

As a full-time athlete, if it wasn’t for the help of Lottery funding then I wouldn’t be able to do this now.
Phil Pratt

Lottery funding

A dozen years in the sport has allowed Phil to develop those friendships and he says his career has also now given him a broader appreciation of the structures that underpin disabled sport.

In the 30th anniversary year of National Lottery funding for sport in the UK, he says: “At first, I was just obsessed with the sport itself and I didn’t really think much about where all the funding was coming from.

“But then you start to reflect about where the funding for equipment, for travel, for training sessions and the rest comes from.

“As a full-time athlete, if it wasn’t for the help of Lottery funding then I wouldn’t be able to do this now.

“And I certainly wouldn’t have even been able to get to regional tournaments when I was young.

“Without the support from things like lottery funding, then our sport as it looks now, just wouldn’t exist.”

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