“Mine and other people’s perceptions of Cerebral Palsy made life tough for me growing up, but it’s made me the strong person I am today, so I honestly wouldn’t change a thing”
James Shaw, Wheelchair Tennis player, had dreams of being a professional footballer. However, he and his parents thought sport wouldn’t be an option for him… until he discovered Wheelchair Tennis.
I was in Sardinia, it was 9.45pm on October 2019, and all spectators had left to get dinner hours before. I was 2 match points down against my Great Britain teammate and I had one more shot to get into the biggest final of my career; here, I realised how far I’ve come from hating my disability for not allowing me to play the sport I loved.
My name is James Shaw and I’m a professional wheelchair tennis player, 4-time national champion, former world team champion, and Cerebral Palsy athlete.
Growing up, my dream was to be a professional footballer; I still remember seeing my parents face as they had to tell their 7-year-old son he wouldn’t be able to achieve his dream because of Cerebral Palsy. Looking back, I know how difficult this discussion must have been, as I know it wasn’t nice for me to hear. I had a plan though! To be a runner like my Dad and again, as I am a full-time wheelchair user this didn’t seem like a viable option.
When I was younger there wasn’t the same everyday knowledge of disability sport, but as I had shown a keen interest in it my Parents took me to a multi-sport try out day. On that day basketball was my favourite but because of my age and distance to travel I tried out at the local wheelchair tennis session first. This was my first real experience of seeing other people with disabilities being active and doing something I saw my friends at school do, this really excited me, and I quickly got hooked.
Up until age 16 I carried on playing tennis once a week and started asking my parents to take me to competitions as it was my dream to earn a trophy at any level. The issue was I showed no real ability to play competitively as shown by one of the tennis coaches saying, ‘you’re not good enough to play the lowest level of tennis competition, if I were you, I’d find another sport’. I was going through my teenage years with poor self-confidence as most do, I required an electric chair to get around which made me feel very different to friends, I had to have time off school with operations, and now people were telling me I wasn’t good enough at a sport I spent almost all my life playing. All this changed me from a young child willing to try anything into a shy teenager struggling to even make a conversation with my classmates.
Luckily for me I met a new coach who bluntly said I was using my disability as an excuse not to push myself. I wasn’t aware that I was doing this as I just didn’t see anyone like me living a ‘normal life’ let alone playing sport at a high level. I thought I was born with CP, it wouldn’t get better, and the aim was to do physio to merely make sure it didn’t get worse.
Through specific training like boxing, climbing, sawing wood, and using nun chucks to name a few, I started to activate muscles I never thought I would be able to. This not only rapidly improved my tennis skills, it also gave me the strength to push my own manual chair which was a huge deal to me because it made me more independent, no longer made me feel like a burden, and pushed me to speak out and make relationships that have lasted to this day.
By improving upon the effects of my disability, I discovered the love for learning and it made me realise even if there’s no simple plan for success as CP is so different from case to case; by making adaptions and being willing to push through the unknown you can be the best you can be. Everyone with a disability or not has something trying to hold them back whether it be poor body image, low confidence, or a lack of motivation, but within my story I’ve had all these and have truly turned things around and continue to do so to this day.
Through my relatively short pro career so far I’ve achieved a lot on court, but recently realised how much I’ve taken my progression off court for granted. By speaking more about my journey to this point through a new audience on my Youtube Channel: ‘James Shaw Wheelchair Tennis’ and winning my semi-final match in Sardinia when the pressure was on and all seemed lost, I’ve realised how many life lessons sport has taught me. I was the shy kid who couldn’t push around school, now I can win professional tennis matches, speak about my journey in front of large crowds, and even push myself into doing modelling work. Mine and other people’s perceptions of Cerebral Palsy made life tough for me growing up, but it’s made me the strong person I am today so I honestly wouldn’t change a thing about it.
If you want to hear more about my journey to the Tokyo Paralympic Games please follow/ subscribe to me @JamesShawTennis on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.