Sitting volleyball opens doors for wounded warrior athletes

Photo of the Air Force sitting volleyball team receiving instructions from their coach.

Nicki Marino, coach of the Air Force sitting volleyball team, gives her players instructions during last year's Warrior Games competition.

Even though she had been playing volleyball for most of her life, and coaching volleyball for several years on top of that, when Nicki Marino was approached about coaching the Air Force sitting volleyball team for the inaugural Warrior Games, she was at something of a loss.

“I am familiar with and totally comfortable with regular volleyball,” Nicki said, “but I didn’t know anything about sitting volleyball.”

Luckily for Nicki, besides the fact that sitting volleyball players sit on the court rather than stand on it, not much else is different. Rules about contacts and violations are the same between standing and sitting volleyball, she said, though sitting players use a smaller court and a shorter net. When it comes to contacting the ball, players must have at least one cheek touching the floor.

Because of the simplicity of the rules and the game itself, sitting volleyball “actually opens the door for a lot of injuries,” said Denise Sheldon, who coaches the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) sitting team.

It is an especially good sport for new athletes and athletes with new injuries, Denise said, because you don’t need any specialized equipment to play. Amputee athletes don’t usually even wear their prosthetics on the court.

“It’s really a freeing thing for them,” Denise said. “It’s a level playing field as soon as you get on the court.” 

In fact, sitting volleyball is one of the only sports in which having all your limbs could put you at a disadvantage. Both Nicki and Denise agree that moving across the floor is the hardest part about sitting volleyball, and legs can tend to get in the way.

“Having played myself, and I have all my limbs, it’s very difficult!” Denise said. “Whether you move around with two legs, one leg, or no legs, we don’t move around on the ground very often.”

The warrior athletes who play the game, however, are always up and ready for the challenge, whatever their particular challenge might be.

“These guys make perfect athletes,” Nicki said. “They know how to push through when it’s hard and painful. They’re not daunted. Everyone looks around and knows it’s for a bigger reason.”

 

Photo of the Special Operations Command sitting volleyball team competing against the Navy team at last year's Warrior Games.

The SOCOM team competes against the Navy team at last year's Warrior Games. Sitting volleyball teaches skills such as leadership, discipline and accountability that are valuable in sports and in life.

That bigger reason is succeeding in life, not just on the volleyball court. According to Denise, participating in adaptive sports such as sitting volleyball can help turn feelings of hopelessness into possibility.

“Even though it’s ‘just’ sport, it can be so powerful,” she said. “Being able to give this to the athletes and wounded warriors is so fun and rewarding. The sense of independence that leads to accomplishment is huge.”

Denise added that, as what she calls the “ultimate team sport,” volleyball has some unique life lessons to teach.

“Volleyball isn’t a race against another person, or another team. It’s a race against gravity. You cannot play without your team. The ball will fall,” she said. “That teaches so many lessons that can be transformed into other parts of an athlete’s life.”

Nicki agrees that sitting volleyball teaches leadership skills, self-discipline and a sense of accountability to your team. It also helps remove fear of failure by giving warrior athletes a place to succeed.

“Especially when they feel they can’t do something in their life the way they used to, it’s not good or bad,” Nicki said. “Now they know you just find your way up, over or around it.”

Both the Air Force and SOCOM teams are looking forward to the Games, and the coaches are looking forward to getting the teams together for some hard training a week or so before competition starts. Everyone hopes to take home a medal, of course, but at the end of the day it’s all about enjoying the experience.

“It’s definitely very cool to see that competitive style come out,” Nicki said. “That’s the thing I think is great about adaptive sports. It allows them to be in that competitive environment and experience sports again.”