A sport that’s changing the lives of blind and partially sighted people

Post date: 
Tuesday, 3 October 2017
Photo of Goalball players and the UK CEO on a court

Mark Winder, the CEO of Goalball UK, describes what it was like to play for the first time and why people with sight loss should get involved.

“So, what is your opinion of goalball?” asked Stuart, a fifteen-year-old young man from Scarborough.
I’m sat in a state-of-the-art facility at the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford, England. I am exhausted, full of thought, awe and pride, and put on the spot by a young man who has just carried me in my first game of goalball. 
I’ve been CEO of Goalball UK for a little over three months. I’ve travelled the UK and been to Europe finding out about a sport that 12 months ago I knew little about, despite it being the most played sport by the visually impaired (VI) community in the UK.
Looking for a career change, a video showing the changes the sport can make to families made me apply. I now find myself in the position of leading a team of extraordinary people who work with a group of equally extraordinary people.

I search my mind for an answer to Stuart, pausing to look across at the confident, smart young man in front of me. I reply: “I think the sport is amazing. The people I have met are really friendly, from officials and volunteers, to players. Everyone’s been really welcoming. The players are inspiring and they don’t let their visual impairment hold them back – not only on the goalball court, but in life.”

Stuart responds: “There are two things you can do – you can let your visual impairment get you down, or you can get on with life. I walk into a door or trip over something and I could get frustrated. I just try to laugh these little accidents off and keep going.”
So at my first goalball experience, I was gently cajoled by staff to give it a go. I kept in my mind that they would love to see the CEO make a complete oaf of himself and mercilessly tease me for eternity, so I had to focus on the task at hand.
Fortunately, I had watched hours of the sport in advance so knew the fundamentals. However, because of the eye shades every player has to wear, I was suddenly minus the luxury of being able to see what my teammates, the opposition or I was doing. This was the first enormous learning curve. There is little or no way to gain feedback on your performance.
I did, however, have the most experienced goalball player, Dan Roper, coaching me. Dan gave me a crash course in technique, communication and was so incredibly positive he helped put my mind at ease. This was added to by the support of the officials, while Dan’s partner, Laura, also offered many kind words (she’s also a goalball player). The couple are Goalball UK’s own Laura Trott and Jason Kenny equivalent from British cycling fame, and Laura and Dan are every bit the same positive role models to our young players.
I had already realised that, despite the fact these players are playing a sport most people are not aware of, they can be described as nothing other than elite athletes in every sense of the word.
For those reading that don’t know about goalball, it is played three-against-three, indoors, on a sports hall floor. There are two teams playing against each other, with one on each end of the court.

All players wear eye shades to make the game fair due to varying levels of sight among players. Some are totally blind, some are partially sighted and some (like me) are fully sighted. The sensation of putting those eye shades on and removing the most reliant sense of a sighted person was initially unnerving and the support of my two team mates was vital.

The object is to roll a 1.25kg ball, which is sort of like a medicine ball, past the opposing team without them stopping it. I was warned to wear my cricket box by a laughing colleague and it soon became apparent why. The ball hurts! (My ribs are still tender after three days.) I was fortunate not to be playing against elite players who deliver their shots at 50 to 60 miles per hour.
You may ask, "How do the players keep track of the ball if they're blind?" The ball has bells in it, allowing the players to listen for it. When they hear the ball coming towards their end of the court, they dive towards it hoping to block it with their body. If all three players miss the ball and it goes over the back line, it is considered a goal.
The players use string taped to the floor to orientate them as to where they are on the court. I soon found myself scrabbling around the floor disorientated, much to the hilarity of my work colleagues.
Stuart also told me he uses exercise to relieve his tensions and I marvelled as he spoke about cycling at his residential college in Worcester. To have his level of self-awareness at only fifteen years old impressed me enormously once more.
He was soon joined by Me-Me (our other team mate) after the game, to revel in our victories – sorry I did not mention they led us to victory in both of our games? I was targeted as the weakest link, but they managed to help me raise my game. I did score two goals and saved two penalties (my competitiveness remains).
Me-Me was also articulate when explaining her love of the sport, at which she equally excels. She told me how it allows her to participate on an even footing with peers, something her visual impairment prevents in other activities.
The importance of sound in the sport necessitates the officials to start play with the phrase “Quiet please”, but off-court we need to completely ignore this rule. I urge everyone to shout about this sport. A sport that is truly pivotal in the improvement of the lives of all involved.

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