Is Goalball the world’s most inclusive sport?
“As I stepped onto the goalball court I felt incredibly nervous. I walked over to face the goal so that the referee could check my eyeshades; I placed them over my face and was plunged into darkness. I was given the “ok” so I knelt down and felt around on the floor to locate the tactile markings on the court to guide me to my position on the left wing. As I waited for the game to start I must have stroked the floor about twenty times to check my marker because I needed to know that I was in the correct position and that I was facing the right way.
As someone who is fully sighted, the idea of competing in a visually impaired sport was something I would never have even thought about until I started working at RNC (Royal National College for the Blind) four years ago. Goalball has always been one of the most popular sports at RNC and the only experience I had of it up until this week was coming into the odd session and having a throw of the ball, without wearing eyeshades. Now, on the court in my first ever goalball tournament without being able to rely on my sight, I suddenly felt very vulnerable. I called out to Ciaron, who was in the centre, he reassured me and said “I’m here, don’t worry. You’ll be fine.” When I first met Ciaron he was a 14 year old boy who had come to a Have a Go activity weekend at the College and was nervous about being away from home for the first time, even though his parents were going to be on the same campus. To go from that scared teenager back then to now being the confident young man commanding the centre of the court, I couldn’t believe it! Ciaron had come to RNC primarily to study IT and had picked up goalball as a fun learning and leisure activity on a Wednesday afternoon; he had never been able to do sport at school because of the usual ‘health and safety’ excuse. I remember speaking to his mum on the phone and she had been singing the praises of the College and in particular the unexpected joy that goalball had brought to their whole family – Ciaron’s mum and dad went to watch him play goalball at tournaments around the country and cheer him on, it was an experience they never thought they would have. Yet here, Ciaron was the one that was reassuring me as I sat anxiously on the edge of the court waiting for the whistle.
So I would sum up my first game of goalball as brutal; I am sure that the other team were targeting me because they knew that I hadn’t played before! The game is so fast paced, you’re on the floor defending a ball, tracking its movement to block it and then you’re straight back up to take your shot and down again to defend. Early on in the game I could feel a ball brush past my fingers and I knew it was going in the back of the net but I couldn’t move fast enough to stop it. I whispered the word “loose” for Ciaron to get to it but it was too late. I felt really bad that I’d conceded so early in the game but all Ciaron kept saying was “It’s ok, it’s ok, you’re doing really well.” His reassurance was really comforting but I was definitely ready to come off at half time!
Goalball is the first game to have been developed specifically for people with visual impairment and for anyone who has never played it you should read the rules of goalball. For me, the beauty of goalball is the fact that anyone can play it – whether you’re blind, partially sighted, fully sighted or have additional disabilities; it’s the most inclusive sport in the world! I see that every day at RNC, during the students’ timetabled goalball sessions in the Sports Academy there will be novice players, who may have only learned about the sport since being at the College, intermediate players, elite players and international GB players all training together in the same session. Obviously adaptions are made and there are rules about how hard the balls are thrown etc. but the principles of the game are the same at every level.
It was a long day at the Region B Novice Goalball Tournament in Birmingham and during the games we had breaks where we would sit together and chat, it was great to see the sort of banter between the RNC students that you would have at any sporting event and it made me sad to think that these guys had never experienced that before, the joking around and the team camaraderie that comes with sport. A lot of students come to RNC having never taken part in sport, often saying that they weren’t allowed to play sport in school so were often made to sit in classrooms, either on their own or with a TA, to do extra work whilst their sighted peers enjoyed sport. For the lucky few that were allowed to compete, they often say that there was no competitive element because their classmates were told they weren’t allowed to tackle the ‘blind kid’ so they never much enjoyed sport as they were still made to feel different. The atmosphere is completely different at a goalball tournament – opponents won’t avoid you for any particular reason, they will still chuck the ball at you and there’s no such thing as taking it easy on you – the bruises I still have are proof of that!
Something which boosted the morale of our team at the tournament was that we had Kali and Joe with us as coaches. Kali plays for the women’s GB goalball team and Joe is in the GB goalball youth development programme. After each game we would go into a separate room and have a debrief where Kali and Joe would go through the talking points of the previous match and then give us pointers of what to focus on for the next match. It was our penultimate match against a team called Fen Tigers, a team who are actually coached by two former RNC students, which proved to be our toughest match. After half time we were losing 7-1 and our team were clearly down and already looked defeated so Kali called a ‘time out’, she rushed onto the court with Joe and the team huddled together. I have no idea what they said but it must have been one hell of a team talk because it was like having a different team back on court, they played with so much more passion and within seconds they had scored goal. Joe was jumping up and down with excitement on the edge of the court as they scored another and another. The atmosphere was electric as if we were at some sort of cup final! Kali, Joe, Ben and I were cheering from the side-lines for every single RNC shot and defence. By the time the whistle blew to signal the end of the match we had clawed it back to 7-5 but because of that tremendous comeback it felt like a win. We were all buzzing as we came off the court and could not have been more pumped for the last match versus Winchester. The score was 3-0 to us at half time and Kali asked me if I wanted to come on, I was so scared of letting a ball in but Anes was in the centre and assured me again “Don’t worry man, I’ve got you covered.” The positive vibes were still there from the last match and the game was going so well for us. I stopped a ball, picked it up, quickly stood up and walked backwards to locate the goal so I knew I was facing forwards, took a massive lunge forwards and threw the ball. After a few seconds I heard the sound of the referee’s whistle blow twice and they shouted “goal”. Oh my gosh, my first every goal in a tournament!!! I don’t know what goalball etiquette is after scoring a goal but I was whooping and screaming and I could hear the rest of my team and coaches on the side-lines doing the same! We ended up winning that match 7-0 and it was the perfect end to a well fought tournament. Our final results were; 3 wins, 1 draw and 2 losses which meant that we were placed third in the tournament and were awarded bronze medals – I think I was more excited than the students to receive them!
After playing my first ever goalball tournament I have to say that it’s pretty addictive and I know I will definitely be playing when I get back to RNC! Having worked here for so long I guess I sometimes take for granted how amazing the facilities are for young people – there’s a full size goalball court, a GB Goalball coach and loads of fellow students to play with and against. When you look at any level goalball tournament, the amount of former RNC students that are there is incredible, it’s a place that introduces people to a sport for life. As well as the physical benefits that come from playing sport, it’s great to see that students are picking up new skills such as team work and communication as well as a new found confidence.”
This blog was written by Bik Lee, Digital Media Officer at RNC (Royal National College for the Blind).
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The bronze winning RNC team at the Region B Novice Goalball tournament in Birmingham. Left to right; Joe Roper, Ben Sheppard, Anes Saleh, Bik Lee, Ciaron Naughton, Chay Clark and Kali Holder.