Choosing the perfect sport wheelchair

If you’re looking to start playing a wheelchair sport, it’s important to know what to look for in your chair.

Due to a lack of frequent television advertisements or major film depictions, the realm of wheelchair sports is often overlooked. These games however are immensely popular and hugely challenging. Disabled and able bodied athletes alike use  streamlined sport wheelchairs that have been designed for speed and agility in games such as wheelchair rugby, basketball, tennis and racing.

Far removed from their everyday cousins, sport wheelchairs tend to be very specific for their games but all of them to share certain traits. Usually, they are non-folding which helps increase solidity, with a pronounced angle for the wheels which can improves stability when handling a sharp turn. The chairs are also made out of composite, lightweight materials and aren’t really suitable for everyday use. As is the case with any high-tech piece of sporting equipment, they are very purpose built.


Wheelchair sports are not only for a those needing wheelchairs. Abled bodied persons are more than welcome to join in for a game, and usually will find themselves up against a challenge. These games are gruelling, fast paced and relentless and many athletes are attracted to the sport purely for the opportunity to train new regions of their bodies and develop muscles they weren’t really aware of previously. 

There is the connotation that because a game is played in a wheelchair that it is a sport solely for those who need them. But this isn’t the case. Wheelchair Rugby or Wheelchair Basketball are not substitutions but their own stand-alone sports. The Wheelchairs are not mobility devices but specific sporting equipment, as sophisticated as skis, or motorcycle gear and the athletes that use them become accustomed to their own equipment.

What should I be looking for?

Generally, the wheelchair sport you’re involved in will have a specific type of wheelchair associated with it. These  wheelchairs will have been specifically developed to suit the different aspects of the sports they’re used for, such as:

balance, weight, speed, strength or safety. There are a few things that should always be considered.

Choosing a Seat Height

Just as when you select an everyday wheelchair, seat height is important. Not only will it have an effect on your sporting performance (centre of gravity, balance and comfort) but it could also prevent injury (tipping over, impact injuries and pressure sores, etc). Seat height is the measurement from floor to seat. If the wheelchair seat is too low the user’s feet may drag. If the seat is too high, the user may have a difficult time exiting the wheelchair. To measure proper seat to floor height, the user should sit upright and have the length from the heel to the bend of the knee measured. Add 1? or 2? for clearance and subtract the thickness of the seat cushion. Seat cushions are strongly recommended, especially for users who are likely to spend any significant amount of time in their wheelchair.

Speak to Coach

Your coach will probably know your style of play better than anyone else (even you). They’ll be able to recommend you look out for certain wheelchair features that will suit or even improve your game. Listen to them. Consider taking them along when you look at or buy a sports wheelchair.


If your club is affiliated to a specific league or association, you may be able to obtain a discount on equipment. Various wheelchair sports use specifically designed wheelchairs. Others utilise ‘all-sport’ wheelchairs that are designed to be handy in a number of different sports.


Tennis wheelchairs are designed to be quick and manoeuvrable. To this end they have steep ‘cambered’ (angled) wheels for stability in the turn. The frames are usually made of aluminium and will be at least partly adjustable. Tennis wheelchairs will usually have two large drive wheels and either one or two specialist castors at the front. Back-rest and axle positions will determine centre of gravity and are usually adjustable, as are footrests. Wheelchair tennis players usually choose to be strapped into their chairs at the ankles and waist.


Wheelchair rugby is an intense and physical game. This explains the front fenders that protect legs and feet in the clashes, of which there are plenty. Some rugby wheelchairs have designs that are intended to hold other wheelchairs in the ‘tackle’

whilst others have wings positioned in front of the main wheels to prevent this and spoke guards to avoid buckled wheels. (Some of these features can be custom built and fitted.) They very commonly have anti tip rear castors.  Some  manufacturers will have their frames post-weld heat treated to remove weak areas around the welds (heat affected zones) these wheelchairs may cost more, but the durability pays off through longevity such is the ferocity of the sport.


Wheelchair football is played from powerchairs with curved fenders that are designed to knock the ball around in order to pass, dribble and shoot (known as ‘bumper kit’).

The Wheelchair Football Association (WFA) has worked specifically with manufacturers in developing two types of powerchair that are designed and built to play the sport. (These chairs come with a WFA sanctioned playing attachments as standard and are available from Invacare.)

Wheelchair football does not have the overly physical element of wheelchair rugby or even basketball and hence is played with powerchairs. These are built with very similar features that will include: manual tilt in space, tension adjustable upholster, angle settable recliner and anti-tippers. This is all driven by an advanced control system.


Racing wheelchairs tend to be very lightweight and equipped with pneumatic tyres, never solids. The dimensions and features on the wheelchairs are strictly specified in the IPC Athletics rules. The rules include points on everything from wheel diameters, rims and construction to gears, steering mechanisms and height from the ground. The best way to get into wheelchair racing is to start with a basic racing wheelchair that is built to abide by the regulations and then change things you are unhappy about later whilst referring to the IPC rules.

Usually, the racing wheelchair will have two large wheels at the rear and one small one at the front connected by a long thin shaft. There are of course, variations within this set-up to allow for seated or kneeling riders. This is a key choice

usually dictated by your physiology or racing style. The frame is generally made of aluminium or a light composite and the wheels will camber between 11 and 13 degrees. There are also several different brake levers available and mud guard

choices so you don’t always have to stick to the ones that are pre-attached to your new purchase.


Basketball wheelchairs are very similar to tennis wheelchairs since they are designed to do largely the same thing. They are perhaps a little more robust due to the contact nature of the sport. There are companies that produce tennis and

basketball wheelchairs with little variation between them. Just as with tennis wheelchairs they have steep ‘cambered’ (angled) wheels for stability in the turn. The frames are usually made of aluminium and will be at least partly adjustable. Basketball wheelchairs will usually have two large drive wheels and either one or two specialist castors with an additional anti-tip castor at the rear. Back-rest and axle positions will determine centre of gravity and are usually adjustable, as are

footrests. Wheelchair basketball players usually choose to be strapped into their chairs at the ankles and waist.


All-sport wheelchairs are just as you’d expect: wheelchairs of lightweight but robust design suitable for various sports (including fencing, badminton, tennis, boccia, basketball and table-top games like cricket among other). They are particularly liked by clubs who may need spares or have members without their own. They tend to be fully adjustable because of this swapping and changing of users.

What questions do I need to ask?

Is the wheelchair really suitable for the sport you have in mind? (Is it fast, light, manoeuvrable and so on?)

Is it the right size? (Seat height, seat depth, width etc.)

Is it comfortable? (This will ultimately affect performance.) Make sure you also select a seat cushion that will not induce too much sweat and that can be wiped clean.

Is it adjustable? (If you’re still growing, will it be too small, too soon?)

Can I upgrade it with better castors, wheels or other kit?

Does the Wheelchair conform to the regulations governing the sport I’ll be participating in? (It should if it is a sport-specific wheelchair.)

What are the push-rims like? (It’s really important that they feel good since moving the wheelchair is an essential characteristic of wheelchair sport.)

Read the July issue of #Sportsider here.

More news