PHIL ROBINSON - WHEELCHAIR BASKETBALL
From Goodison Park to gold medals, that is the unique sporting journey Disability Sport Northern Ireland’s wheelchair basketball performance officer Phil Robinson has been on.
Robinson is hoping to coach more athletes to medals as wheelchair basketball makes its debut at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham next summer.
It was at his local football club where Robinson’s passion for sport was first ignited.
“I was always a big fan of football when I was younger, I played for Carnmoney Colts, Ballyclare youth teams and Crusaders youth teams,” said Robinson.
“I maybe wasn’t good enough to pursue a carer in sport, I attended Glengormley High School, the teaching staff there were brilliant, and they were really keen on people becoming PE teachers or teachers and they pushed us into doing some coaching awards one of which was football.”
“I started coaching at 16 for the high school going around the likes of Ballyhenry Primary School and others in the greater Glengormley and Carnmoney area to do some coaching with the young kids and I fell in love with it.”
“I fell in love with the process, the fun and all the enjoyment that comes along with being a coach and involved in sport on a daily basis, being creative with it really excited me so from that point forward it was either go into teaching or become a sports coach, so the teachers at school had a massive impact on me.”
“At school we were encouraged to try as many sports as possible, so I got some badges in rugby, football, basketball and athletics one as well and it was all about broadening your experiences, I did my A level in PE and continued on that coaching journey.”
Next port of call for Robinson in his coaching development was England.
“I got good grades but not enough to keep me in Northern Ireland because Jordanstown is a tough place to get into and I went to Liverpool University and studied Education and Sport and it enhanced my love for everything in that world that I was able to spend all my time reading about coaching and emerging myself in getting opportunity to focus on it.”
“When I was in Liverpool I took on different opportunities but the one that stood out most was working with Everton Football Club.”
“They had a thing at Goodison Park called the Extra Time programme and part of it was working with disaffected youth or people that weren’t really engaging with school.”
“They would come into the school they had built at Goodison and it would enhance their learning through sport so everything mathematical or English was based around football, so it was about encouraging people to engage with sport as well continuing with their education.”
“It was brilliant, and I really enjoyed it but all the time I felt I was missing out on something and when the degree finished I wanted to get back home and see if I could do something in sport back Northern Ireland.”
It was a family connection that got Robinson involved in wheelchair basketball.
“My nephew is Jack Agnew, he has been to the Commonwealth Games as a wheelchair athlete but originally he was part of the Knights Wheelchair Basketball Club which was based in Belfast and Newtownabbey.”
“They are a massive club and institution in terms of player development in Northern Ireland and the work they have done over the years is incredible.”
“My brother-in-law approached me and knew I had a massive interest in sport and asked could I come down to the Knights and help with the juniors, this would have been around 2008/10.”
“An opportunity came up in Disability Sport NI for a wheelchair basketball performance officer and I thought I have to have a go at it because I have nothing to lose.”
“I went for it and got the role just after the London Paralympics and it was an amazing opportunity and I knew I had to throw myself into it to get the best out of myself and to further develop the system that had already been created there by Disability Sport NI.”
“From my position I deal with everyone in the pathway from players that are emerging onto the scene at 13 and coming into our U25 academy, we have supported many people at different ages and different stages within that pathway.”
“We have supported athletes from U13 to make sure the athletes and making sure they are going about things the right way initially from a skill set perspective and building on foundations through to emerging talent like Conn Nagel who are going to be one to watch in international games in the future, then up to the likes of James MacSorley and Katie Morrow who have been to world championships and Paralympics and are real elite level."
“Then there is the excitement around the Commonwealth Games where there are so many other good international players that have maybe not made it at Great Britain level but have played for Ireland and it is massively exciting for me to be able to work with elite athletes based in Northern Ireland.”
“I work across the sport and I love that I’m able to work with a lot of different talented people across the of sport.”
Under Robinson’s tutelage Katie Morrow took up the sport in 2013 and three years later was playing in a Paralympic semi-final.
“I think there is always an element of understanding what is happening at international level and having an understanding of where the gaps are for people to come into a programme like that at a high level.”
“There is also an element of certain luck there, you go on a journey and a pathway with the athlete and you don’t quite know if they are going to make elite level but with someone like Katie Morrow her journey stands out the most because she went to the Paralympics in such an enhanced and short space of time.”
“It was very much looking at what GB needed at that time, where there were gaps in the market and what we were looking for from a players perspective in the NI programme.”
“The further you get down that pathway and you have a confirmation of talent the more services you can place around the athlete to push them on.”
“I believe the coach is there to help the athlete flourish and develop and show their potential when they get on court on the biggest stage.”
“It was great experience for Katie and myself but it was a lot of hard work especially for Katie because at the time she was doing her GCSE’s and she completed them with great marks, everything was well planned and co-ordinated to get the best out of Katie and that we limited the stress and the pressure on the build up.”
In 2018 James MacSorley was part of the Great Britain team that became world champions.
“The Knights had a huge role in James development from a junior to a senior and that is where he spent a lot of his time, what we provided James with was a bit more of enhancement around skill and getting him to focus on him as an athlete because often in team sport you are left to fend for yourself and develop your own skills I believe the skills that we provided James with just not from a world championships perspective prepared him and it was about going through the rigor of working through skill sets making sure he had his lifestyle sorted out and having a performance mind set.”
“To get into a world championship winning side within 12 months of being in the programme is phenomenal but he had it in him and it was a matter of him going across to the GB elite training centre in Sheffield to be in the best place possible at the right time with the right mind set and the best levels of support behind him.”
“Once you have all those pillars in place you are giving a person a good as chance as possible to create brilliant things.”
Robinson feels the inclusion of wheelchair basketball for the time in 2022 Commonwealth Games will be a huge boost for the sport.
“It is really historic for the sport and it is a real privilege for someone like me to be involved in and be fortunate enough to put structures in place to allow players to go over and perform hopefully after we have qualified.”
“The qualification is key and we are focused on that in terms of developing the team and the new style of play, historically we have played 5x5 but this new format of 3x3 is something different, the offensive time is different, the size of court is different and the number of players on court is different so there are a lot of exciting challenges and I think both the men and the women’s squads have an opportunity to qualify for the games.”
“I’m really buzzing that we have the opportunity to represent our country at some level of competition whether that is the qualifiers or hopefully at the Commonwealth Games.”
“For the first time there is an elite pathway for a Northern Irish squad so we have players that have played for GB. Players that have played for Ireland and we have been able to amalgamate everybody which is really exciting.”