Professor and Paralympic Champion Paves the Way for Inclusiveness to be Center Court in Tennis
September 20, 2023
It’s a breezy 80-degree day in Greeley. Scott Douglas, Ph.D., Kinesiology, Nutrition and Dietetics professor in the College of Natural and Health Sciences is taking a break from his classroom to grab a tennis racket, dozens of tennis balls, a speaker to play 90s alt music and begins playing wheelchair tennis. Even though he’s not instructing UNC students during this time, he’s still supporting learners because he’s not alone on the court.
For the past three years, Douglas has been coaching two high school wheelchair athletes from Boulder, Tomas Majetic and Sabina Czauz. Occasionally, they meet at UNC’s outdoor blue tennis courts to train where Douglas spends hours serving the pair ball after ball as they speed across the court to hit them back.
“When I first met them, they both played wheelchair basketball and I saw the potential in them right away,” Douglas said. “They are both very grounded and good kids.”
Coaching has always been one of Douglas’ passions, earning his doctorate in Human Performance from the University of Alabama and dedicating his research to the profession of coaching. Beyond that, Douglas has first-hand experience playing and competing at a high level in tennis. In 2000, he was a bronze medalist in men’s wheelchair tennis doubles during the Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
Now, he wants athletes like Majetic and Czauz to experience the same level of achievement.
“I want to make champions out of both of them,” Douglas said. “I want to bring American tennis back to where we’re competing for gold medals again, because [America] hasn’t medaled in the games since 2000.”
Above: Scott Douglas training Tomas Majetic and Sabina Czauz.
To start the road to success, at the beginning of September, Douglas took the athletes to the US Open in Queens, New York, where Czauz competed in the junior’s wheelchair women’s singles and doubles tournaments, and Majetic competed in junior's wheelchair men’s singles and doubles. Both Czauz and Majetic made it to the quarterfinals in the singles tournament and the doubles finals earning runner-up finishes.
“They did excellent,” Doulgas said. “It’s all about patience because they’re both eager to go pro but they’re not completely ready yet. We’re [coaches] being very methodical in developing them, so they don’t burnout or have false expectations.”
Tomas Majetic celebrating while playing in the US Open junior tournament.
Sabina Czauz competing in the US Open junior tournament.
Tomas Majetic (right) high-fiving his doubles partner in the US Open junior tournament.
Sabina Czauz (left) competing at the US Open junior tournament.
Tomas Majetic (far right) shaking hands with his competitors during the US Open junior tournament.
Seeing Majectic and Czauz experience the drive, the sense of purpose and the feeling of accomplishment from the US Open, Douglas wants to create major changes in how all tennis players train to become champions. He sees the potential the sport has in becoming more accessible and well-known, and the way to get there, he says, is to have all tennis athletes, those with and without disabilities, train together.
For most of the time, Douglas trains Majetic and Czauz at the Rocky Mountain Tennis Center (RMTC) in Boulder. Partnering with the director of the tennis club, Kendall Chitambar, Douglas started training his two athletes during RMTC’s summer-long High-Performance program, where Majetic, Czauz and one other wheelchair athlete were integrated with all the other tennis athletes.
Seeing how well everyone was getting along, Doulgas turned the opportunity into a research study with his doctoral student Jenna Altomare.
“We wanted to look at the reaction and the perception of what melting the two types of athletes together looked like or felt like,” Douglas said. “Or [learn] if it hurts the players who have a higher skill level because we’re bringing players who aren’t as skilled into the mix? That’s what we wanted to find out.”
To answer those questions, over a three-month period, Douglas and Altomare surveyed all the athletes, their parents and the RMTC coaches, which ended up being more than a dozen people, asking them how they felt about infusing the wheelchair athletes with the athletes without disabilities together. Some of the questions included: what have you learned most about coaching athletes who use a wheelchair? What were your initial thoughts, impressions and reactions to having athletes who use a wheelchair on your team? Do you feel welcome and socially accepted at the integrated tennis club?
Douglas and Altomare were shocked with the results.
“Across the board, 100%, the parents loved the training experience for their child,” Douglas said. “They loved seeing the athleticism of someone with a disability of that level and I could see it opening up their eyes to outside the court.”
“We found three themes in our research; finding true potential, the chair is no longer a barrier and inclusive coaching practices,” Altomare added. “The one that surprised me was the theme that the chair is no longer a barrier because in everyday life, disability is often viewed by society as a barrier.”
“One coach stated, ‘When we first integrated, chair players were very nervous and able-bodied were just as nervous. And now, [there’s] this amazing environment where everyone celebrates everyone.’ A parent added, ‘She can just invite a friend to play, and it wouldn’t matter that they are in a wheelchair or not.’ There were many more rich quotes that fell under this theme, and it was encouraging to find that sport can be an environment where everyone is viewed the same, treated the same and given the same equitable opportunities.”
Dougals’ favorite part of the study was witnessing the social environment that blossomed among the athletes.
“A lot of the players became friends,” Douglas said. “I saw a lot of the able-bodied kids playing in wheelchairs, hitting balls together just for fun to see what it feels like. So, it has opened up a really interesting sort of dynamic in practice where sometimes the players in wheelchairs will be playing with players standing opposite them. So, instead of matching people up based on age or gender, we matched players up based on their skill.”
Douglas also noted that his wheelchair athletes were pushed to train and perform at a higher level, which helped them improve at a faster pace.
After collecting the responses and reading the positive remarks, Douglas and Altomare now want to expand this concept of having all athletes, regardless of disability, train together to be matched across tennis courts nation-wide.
“In finding that an integrated tennis program does provide psychosocial benefits to all members of the tennis community, we hope to encourage other programs to follow suit and take steps toward full integration,” Altomare said.
“I want to work with the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and spread this training all over the country so that every young child who has potential can go to a club and feel comfortable and the people around them will feel comfortable,” Douglas added.
“To me, that’s life-changing work, because we’ve always, even with boys and girls, separated athletes. Why can’t we train together?”
Douglas says an important part of making a training program like this successful is developing coaches who are more well-rounded and accepting of people and believe in the Sport for All concept.
“Your sexual orientation doesn’t matter, the color of your skin doesn’t matter and your ability or disability doesn’t matter. The disability is a diagnosis. It’s not a sport category.”
— Scott Douglas
While Douglas works to publish the findings of the study this fall in a peer-reviewed sport journal and bring them to the USTA’s attention, he’ll also continue to coach his young US Open competitors because they all have big plans.
“The goal is to have both [Majetic and Czauz] compete in the 2028 Paralympic Games in L.A.,” Douglas said. “I’m hoping that I’ll work with them for the whole time until then, because I want to see them get a shot to play in the Paralympics and play for a medal.”
In the meantime, Douglas, Majetic and Czauz, will continue to meet up in Greeley to practice their serves and groundstrokes, and hitting their targets giving Douglas a “break” from the classroom.
- written by Sydney Kern