To Gillingham for goalball with Rob Comber at the Medway Park Sport Centre. Apart from watching a video of goalball online I’d never seen or played the game so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. What I found was a game that, while it was originally designed to help with the rehabilitation of blind and visually impaired World War II soldiers, can be enjoyed by everyone and which (Rob would argue!) is the most inclusive of the Paralympic blind & VI sports.
Goalball is played in a space akin to indoor 5-a-side football pitch (though I think it could be played in any indoor or outdoor space with a flat surface). It’s a 3-a-side game (with subs allowed) and the aim is to throw a ball – that has bells embedded in it – into the opponents’ goal. The goals are the width of the pitch and 1.3m high. The ball is c. 3 pounds in weight and is thrown at speeds of up to 90miles/hr at international level.
Teams alternate rolling the ball – using an action akin to ten pin bowling – from one end of the playing area to the other. Players remain in the area of their own goal in both defence and attack. The game is played in silence and players must use the sound of the bell to judge the position and movement of the ball. Games consist of two 12 minute halves. Blindfolds allow partially sighted players to compete on an equal footing with blind players.
Having taken me through the basics of how the game is played, Rob started by getting me to move and run round the court with a blindfold on. If you haven’t done it before, its something of a challenge as its easy to become disorientated and you have to place total trust in the coach to tell you when you’re about to hit a wall.
We them moved onto the three key skills I needed to learn – passing, shooting and defending. Passing is done between team mates in their own playing area and is over relatively short distances. Despite this, it’s no easy thing as you can neither see nor hear your team mates.
Shooting is over a much longer distance and my accuracy was very poor to begin with. However, Rob puts you through a series of exercises whereby you start by shooting in the direction of his claps before then relying on your positional sense to shoot – as would happen during a game. Finally he adds some tactile markers to the playing surface which are part of the game and which help your aim enormously.
We ended by practicing defending which involves listening to the ball coming your way, judging where its going and, usually at the last moment, throwing yourself to the ground in the ‘Superman position’ to block the ball.
One of the pleasures of my Gold Challenge had been meeting a series of fascinating people who are passionate about their sports – and Rob was no different. Rob first realised he might have an issue with his eyes when, as a policeman, he crashed two cars. He went to see a doctor and was initially diagnosed as having a brain tumour – which turned out to be an eye disease. He left the police and started concentrating on disability sports with some considerable success – he has played blind & VI cricket for England and is a professional goalball coach. Public sector cuts mean that Rob will lose his job next year but he’s very keen to remain working in the area of disability sports. If anyone reading this can help, then please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org!