The coach behind the champion

Nimrod Bichler, Paralympic gold-medalist Noam Gershony’s coach, had to come up with what he calls “unconventional” solutions when training his charge to play wheelchair tennis.

ISRAEL’S NOAM GERSHONY (photo credit: Razi Livnat)
(photo credit: Razi Livnat)
Nimrod Bichler, Paralympic gold-medalist Noam Gershony’s coach, had to come up with what he calls “unconventional” solutions when training his charge to play wheelchair tennis.
“Let me put it this way: Even someone who played tennis well, standing up, and was later injured and suffers from a minor injury will not make it to the highest levels in wheelchair tennis if he does not invest a lot of hard work learning to ride in a wheelchair,” says the coach. “It is not enough to be a high-level tennis player. You have to incorporate that with a fast, efficient and correct movement on the court.”
He notes that when a player’s wrist is fixed at a particular angle, as in Gershony’s case, there will be techniques he will have difficulty performing.
“The ‘forehand’ swing, for example. This is a basic swing in tennis. When someone hits a low ball, you have to use your wrist. This action is done to lower the head of the racket below the ball, so you can get the ball above the net. Noam could not perform that basic activity with his wrist, because it was set [at one angle]. I had to teach him an alternative technique, and instead of using his wrist, I taught him that when he recognizes a low ball, he should go down with his shoulder, so the whole right side of his body will bend. Otherwise, he could not serve a curve ball.”
A curve ball, he explains, requires the use of the wrist.
“[Instead,] he can hit a serve that is called, in professional terminology, ‘flat.’ So we took that serve to the highest level, in terms of percentages, accuracy and strength. We had to change the existing techniques to something unconventional, and we found solutions to some of the things.”
In wheelchair tennis, unlike in sports like swimming and table tennis, there are only two categories of handicap: the lighter level, for participants with amputated limbs and paralysis, and the severe handicap level, also called “Quad,” for players who are disabled in both their arms and their legs.
“Of course, there are no two disabled people alike, who have the same disability level,” says Bichler. “Even at the Quad level, there are some whose degree of disability is more severe and some whose disabilities are lighter.”
Gershony competes in the Quad category.
“After a few months of training, Noam started to compete in a few local tournaments for players with less severe disabilities.
I was very impressed by his mental ability. He has a high level of concentration. I’ve noticed that during the game, he stays close to the plan we made ahead of time, and exploits his opponent’s weaknesses and demonstrates his own strengths,” says his coach.
“He achieved a lot on a local level, a national level. But I knew that international success would only come if he qualified as Quad. With a disability as severe as his, he had no chance in the lighter handicap category when it came to the international level.”
In July 2010, Gershony underwent an examination in France that ultimately qualified him as Quad.
“The examination is divided into two parts,” Bichler explains. “The first part was done in a closed room. The second took place on the court. Examiners from the International Tennis Federation examined Noam in terms of his arms’ functionality, since his the functionality of his legs was hardly significant. He does use a wheelchair. They tested the way his arms operate in terms of range of movement, upper body stability and his use of his back and ab muscles.”
According to the point system the examiners used, the higher the athlete’s functionality, the higher the score. To be a Quad, an athlete’s score must be no higher than 10.5 points.
“Noam was borderline – a half point more and he would have been disqualified [as Quad],” says the coach.
After the examination, he recalls, “I took Noam for a personal conversation. I called it ‘Tennis: Where are we going from here?’ I told him that I know the Quad players who compete in the world tour. It was clear to me that he was going to make it to third place in the world. I told him, ‘If you want to go beyond that, you are going to have to work hard.’
“At that point, we did not think of first place or an Olympic gold medal. We thought of how to get an Olympic medal, period. Our plan was that he would participate in tournaments that would ultimately lead him to the Olympic Games, ranked among the best four players in the world.”
Gershony went on a series of tournaments around the world and began making a name for himself, winning a tournament in Prague and getting to the finals in tournaments in the US, Japan and Korea. Toward the end of 2011, he won the Masters tournament in Belgium, where the best four tennis players competed.
But then an unexpected twist took place: His competitors decided to challenge his Quad categorization.
“The Americans claimed that his disability was too light for this category,” Bichler continues. “He went through an appeal in The Netherlands in November 2011. There, he was examined in the closed room and assessed by his skills on the court. We did not hide the fact that Noam walks with a special device he puts on his leg. The examiners realized that Noam’s improved functionality on the court had to do with a device we purchased for him, which enables him to have better control on the wheelchair and to respond to every movement the body makes in a better way.”
The appeal was denied. Noam retained his Quad status, and he once again became one of Israel’s great hopes for an Olympic Medal.