“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. 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 games of goalball. Stuart, along with a young lady from Colne in Lancashire who has been playing goalball for less than a year, Amelia or ‘Me-Me’ as she prefers to be known, are just two more people who have blown me away.
I have been CEO of Goalball 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 community in the UK. Looking for a career change a video showing the changes the sport can make to families made me apply.
I find myself in the fortuitous position of leading a team of extraordinary people who work with a group of equally extraordinary people who play a sport designed for blind and partially sighted people but so inclusive virtually anyone can play.
I search my mind for an answer to Stuart, pausing to look across at him and see a confident, smart young man who is at ease with himself.
“Stuart, I think the sport is amazing, the people I have met are really friendly, from officials and volunteers, to players. Everyone has been really welcoming. The players are inspiring. Virtually everyone is visually impaired but they don’t let this stop them, not only on the goalball court, but in life. I have worked with many individuals outside of the VI world who come up with excuses not to do things. Everyone just seems to get on with it.”
Then came a reply one may expect from a much more mature person;
“There’s two things you can do, you can let it (visual impairment) get you down. Or you can laugh it off and get on with life. I walk into a door or trip over something or make a mistake and I could get frustrated. I just try to laugh these little accidents off and keep going.’
This resilience is something I have marvelled at within the sport I have grown to love. As a youngster, I loved sport and it probably kept me in education, so I could keep playing rugby, cricket, football, athletics in fact any sport I could try. I knew I had to try goalball but did not want to push my way onto court in front of the players who had travelled, often by public transport often for over three hours.
I had just had my first experience. 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 so knew the fundamentals and that some of the skills were transferable, however, 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 was, however, dealt another positive hand. I had Dan Roper, presently the most experienced GB player, coaching me.
This makes me remember another gem of a story from my experiences this week. At 10pm when the staff had settled the junior players into their beds, they joined the GB elite squads who were at the camp supporting staff, (another example of the community warmth within the sport) for a game of poker, led by already mentioned Dan. The mood was light with many jokes that were self-depreciating, around the puns of ‘playing blind’ and ‘reading people’s poker face’. The game using cards with braille on them was played in the same spirit that I have witnessed in many cricket pavilions on rainy summer days, or the back seats of coaches on rugby trips.
Dan gave me a crash course in technique, communication and was so incredibly positive he put my mind at ease. In the same concise, articulate and clear way former international cricketer Paul Nixon used to when I was a young cricketer, receiving his advice in cricket nets. This was added to by the support of the officials, whilst Dan’s partner, Laura, also offered many kind words. Laura is also a GB Women’s 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 do not know about goalball it is played three-against-three, indoors on a sports hall floor. Games are really competitive and exciting to watch, even on a local level. There are two teams playing against each other, with one on each end of the 18×9 metre court. All players wear eye shades to make the game fair. This is due to varying levels of sight among players. Some are totally blind, some are partially sighted, some like myself are fully sighted. The shades create equality among players.
The sensation of putting those eye shades on and removing the most reliant sense of a sighted person was unnerving and the support of my two team mates was vital. Stuart and Me-Me encouraging me throughout my experience was crucial. An unusual feeling in itself, given I am nearly three times their age.
The object is to roll a 1.25kg goalball, which is sort of like a medicine ball, past the opposing team without them stopping it. It’s their job to block that ball at all costs.
This was the next surprise. 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 3 days). I was fortunate not to be playing against elite players who deliver their shots at 50-60mph.
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, usually perpendicular, towards it hoping to block it with their body and stop it. If all three players miss the ball and it goes past them or over them and then over the back line, it is considered a goal.
The players use string taped to the floor, to orientate themselves 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.
As I mentioned, afterwards, Stuart spoke with the maturity of a much older player. Talking of the frustration he brushes off, a feeling I felt on court. He conceded he feels frustration, like any teenager. He uses exercise to relieve his tensions and I marvelled as he told me about going cycling, as fast as he can at his residential college in Worcester. On a specially designed track. To have this level of metacognition at fifteen years old once more impressed me enormously. This feeling of admiration for the youngsters we work with has left me incredibly humbled on so many occasions already.
He was soon joined by Me-Me 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 equally articulate when explaining her love of the sport, at which she equally excels. She told me how it allows her to participate on an equal footing with peers, something her visual impairment prevents in other activities.
The warmth of the goalball community is unrivalled in all the sports I have been involved in. The competitiveness just as fierce, but the sportsmanship and respect for officials, staff and volunteers is to be commended.
The game itself was the most enjoyable I have played. I am proud to be working alongside these people in a sport that I want more people to play, watch and enjoy.
The importance of sound in the sport necessitates the officials to start play with the phrase ‘Quiet Please’.
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.