Amanda Dennis dives to block the ball in the women's Goalball at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 on Sept. 11, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
If you haven’t heard of the sport of goalball, you aren’t alone.
Goalball is the only Paralympic event that isn’t derived from another sport. Its origins date back to World War II, when it was used to rehabilitate and keep active soldiers who had been blinded in combat. It is now played in 112 countries around the world and is the most popular team sport among the blind, according to the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes.
On the surface, it seems fairly simple. Two teams of three players each play on a surface the size of an international volleyball court — 18 meters (59 feet) long and 9 meters (29 feet, 6 inches) wide — trying to score into a goal that extends the entire endline and is 1.3 meters (2 feet, 3 inches) high. The court is divided into three 6-meter sections, with players having to remain in their team area (the section closest to the goal they are defending) unless tracking down a loose ball in the neutral area. The team areas are divided in half, with the 3 meters closest to the goal called the orientation area and where players start each play, with the other half called the landing area, while the neutral area is divided by the center line. All of these sections are marked by string and covered by tape so players can orient themselves.
The ball is blue, about the size of a basketball and is hard rubber (weighing 2 pounds, 12 ounces), with eight small holes to better allow sound from the bell on the inside of the ball to be heard. Games consist of two 12-minute halves and, due to varying levels of blindness, all athletes wear eyeshades to negate any sight and ensure they are playing on the same level.
While those are the basics, just like any other sport, there are strategic details that make the game more interesting. To learn more, we turned to Jake Czechowski, coach of the U.S. women’s team, and one of his players, two-time Paralympian Amanda Dennis. Women’s goalball has been played at the Paralympic Games since 1984, while men’s competition began in 1976.
Types of Throws
There are three ways to throw a goalball: smooth ball, skip ball and bounce ball, although Czechowski said terminology can differ from team to team. A smooth ball is one that stays in contact with the floor, a skip ball is like skipping a stone and doesn’t bound very high and the bounce ball, which has more height and slightly less velocity to it.
Players have 10 seconds to get a shot off and will sometimes spin before throwing. Czechowski says the speed of the balls at the international level is 40 mph. There are variations of each type of throw, different angles, curves and spins, with topspin being very key.
“I like throws that skip or bounce,” said Dennis, a 26-year-old who helped the U.S. win bronze at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 and gold at the 2018 world championships. “A lot of the throws, if you can get the ball to hit a hand or a foot and you have topspin on the ball, because the ball is spinning as it hits them, it will hit them, and it doesn't matter how great of a position that they're in, it'll just pop into the goal. So I like to throw shots that have more like skip and topspin.”
With players’ sight negated, sound becomes key. Thus, when the ball is in play, coaches, bench players and spectators must remain quiet. The players, however, can talk with each other. It is only when a goal is scored, a ball goes out of bounds or some other stoppage when coaches can communicate with players. Usually, the dead-ball situation is only about 30 seconds, so Czechowski said he likes to make adjustments in the first 10 seconds and allow the players to talk with each other about what is transpiring in the remaining time.
A former high school football linebacker, Czechowski said he has about 15 plays he can call with simple commands.
“Something that we always do on our team is every time there's a stoppage, that wing that's closest to the sideline is coming over, listening for instruction,” he said. “I can give them information as to who, where and what type of throw. And we also have base calls.”
Unlike a sport like soccer or hockey, all three players are responsible for defending the goal. Of course, unlike those sports, this net stretches the entire 9 meters of the endline. The center and two wings split the orientation area into thirds and each player is in a prone-type position — generally with one knee up to create a barrier for the ball to get over — to cover the maximum amount of space in front of the goal.
“We have core defensive principles,” Czechowski said. “One of them is you need to be able to do two things: Go from a perfect ready position to a perfect blocking position. And then you've got to be able to read the ball first and know where it is going and then able to put yourself into that perfect position.”
With no physical contact between teams, the types of penalties are more technical in nature. The most common penalties are high balls and long balls. A high ball is a throw that does not make contact with the floor in the thrower’s team area, while a long ball is a throw that does not touch the neutral area as well as the team area.
All penalties result in a penalty shot. A player from the offending team is chosen by the team taking the penalty shot and must defend the entire goal alone.
“It's a lot of area to cover,” Dennis said with a laugh.