Understanding the health benefits of wheelchair soccer

As soccer players glided up, down and across a gymnasium floor in their power wheelchairs, trying to direct a ball into the opposing team's net, a group of Radford University students observed from the sideline.

This group of sports medicine majors weren't thinking so much about the score or game strategy, but rather about the inner workings of the players' bodies as they competed.

Students Amanda Joyce, Sarah Smith, Nicole Walsh and Brad Webber traveled to Fort Wayne, Indiana in November to assess 53 athletes with physical disabilities, including spinal cord injury, muscular dystrophy and spinal muscular atrophy. The athletes were part of teams from Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and New York competing in a two-day national power wheelchair soccer event.

The students' goal was to collect data concerning the amount of energy wheelchair soccer players expend during a game.

"The purpose of this research trip was to measure energy expenditure and vo2 (peak oxygen uptake) of power soccer athletes," said Webber, a senior from Virginia Beach. "We wanted to observe the physiological changes that the participants' bodies experienced while playing, if any."

RU Health and Human Performance faculty members J.P. Barfield and Laura Newsome led the research trip, which, as Barfield explained, was designed to enable the students to "integrate their academic work in sports medicine."

The data results surprised some of the student researchers. "You wouldn't think using a power wheelchair would take a lot effort and energy, but the data shows the opposite of that," said Walsh, a junior from Mechanicsville. "I think the data could be useful for athletes to know that they are in fact getting a workout."

Not only were the athletes using energy, Webber said, "but at times the data indicated levels of RER (respiratory exchange ratio) that were comparable to a standing athlete approaching fatigue and max exertion."

In addition to determining the necessary amount of energy needed for competition, the collected data, Barfield explained, can be used to assist the athletes in their everyday lives. "The data will also be used to determine if power wheelchair soccer can help sustain functional independence and activities of daily living among persons with severe disabilities," he said.

For the students, many of whom will pursue careers in physical and occupational therapy, the exercise was constructed to provide them with an in-depth understanding of the characteristics of their future patients. "Their data will enhance the understanding of wheelchair soccer outcomes in terms of health benefits and independence," Barfield explained. "This event was an excellent example of how student research supports the academic curriculum culminating with high impact outcomes."


From left: Health and Human Performance Associate Professor J.P. Barfield, Katie Tate, Avalon McMullen, Taylor Hathaway, Megan Dodson and Health and Human Performance Assistant Professor Laura Newsome with wheelchair athletes.


As for communicating their data to the public, the students have an option to present their findings at the RU Student Engagement Forum in April, publishing in an undergraduate research journal or applying to present at a national conference for undergraduate research.

Barfield is planning to present that data at a national conference and publish the findings in an adapted physical activity or physical rehabilitation medical journal.

The research is a continuation of Barfield's examination of muscle fatigue of Paralympic athletes.

Under the direction of the U.S. Paralympic Research and Sports Science Consortium, he, Newsome and Health and Human Performance Associate Professor David Sallee began in 2014 studying, through electromyography (EMG), the game play movements of the athletes and to determine fatigue patterns of various shoulder movements.

The RU researchers closely studied how the athletes compensate for muscle fatigue as their activity progressed. They also studied fatigue patterns associated with gameplay and training movements of the athletes in hopes of helping trainers and coaches develop better conditioning routines that limit these risks.

"There's not nearly enough research for Paralympic athletes as there is for able-body athletes," Barfield said. "Able-bodied athletes use their legs, whereas wheelchair athletes have a lot of stress on their shoulders. They're moving a lot of mass with a much smaller muscle group. So, the injury risk is a lot higher, and one way to combat that is to make sure you're training them properly."


Jan 29, 2016