Goalball Resident Program Creates Strong Team Dynamic

By Courtney Patterson | Feb. 18, 2016, 7:12 p.m. (ET)

The U.S. Men’s Goalball Resident Program has become a reality as athletes train, strategize and practice as a team.

Last October, six elite goalball athletes from various locations throughout the U.S. and a coach packed up their belongings and moved to a new city to follow a dream. For some, this was their first time living outside their hometown, for others, it would be another stop in the journey towards competing in the Paralympic Games.

Before the U.S. Men’s Goalball Resident Program was established, players would travel to training camps once every two months to practice as a unit. The training camps would be 3-5 days of nothing but goalball. The concentrated team bonding and synergy gained during training camps was often lost when the athletes returned home to train on their own.

United States Association of Blind Athletes, the national governing body for the Paralympic sport, recognized the gap and went to work fundraising and building a structure for the first-ever goalball resident program in the U.S., and ultimately, a Goalball Center of Excellence, at the Turnstone Center for Children & Adults with Disabilities in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Mike Mushett, CEO of Turnstone Center, a private local donor, local Lions Clubs, and numerous private donations from supporters across the U.S. recognized the gap too and made the resident program a reality.

“Athletes who compete in team sports at the elite level must have the opportunity to practice and train on a consistent basis,” said USABA’s executive director, Mark Lucas.

The vision is to build a Goalball Center of Excellence - an established residence where teams from across the U.S. and around the world will visit and train with U.S. teams for a period of time. Establishing the men’s resident program was the first step towards realizing that vision.

 “We are extremely proud to work with our partner in Fort Wayne, Turnstone Center for Children & Adults with Disabilities to put together all necessary elements of a resident program in order for athletes to compete on the highest level,” said Lucas.

Six elite athletes were selected from a pool of applicants and the program was established. Now, five days a week, the athletes practice, strategize and train as a team. 

They begin their day on the goalball court at the Turnstone Center Field House. Resident Coach, Matthew Boyle, sets up drills where the players practice accuracy and develop their agility on the court. They’ll often participate in a competitive scrimmage before breaking to ice muscles, stretch and reflect on what moves and strategies still need work. The team shares light-hearted conversation over lunch and then hits the weight room where they work with Turnstone’s lead strength and conditioning specialist, Edward Whitney.

Whitney focuses on plyometrics three days a week and anaerobic training the other two. The team then breaks for a second meal together where they mindfully select entrees that support their nutritional needs as full-time athletes. Their selections are based on tips and knowledge gained from individual sessions with a United States Olympic Committee nutritionist.

A training schedule this intense was a big change for most resident athletes.

“The first 2-3 weeks, my arm felt like it was going to fall off,” said Daryl Walker. Like many of his teammates, Walker was practicing one to two times a week before he moved to Fort Wayne to train with the resident program. “Now, we get to train as often as we possibly can. It’s great.”

Before, players and coaches were fitting in as much practice as possible during 3-day training camps, leaving little time to pause and focus on specific skills and technique.

“You approach practicing every day versus every other month much differently” said coach Boyle. “We’re able to really dig in now. We’re building on each players’ skills, and developing their athleticism and ability.”

Focused training has allowed each player to improve individually, but also as a team.

“We’ve had an opportunity to try new things – styles of throw, different defensive combinations,” said Joseph Hamilton. “We’re more relaxed because we’ve been practicing together consistently. We’re more aware on the court and our energy level is really high. We’re improving and the proof is in the competition results.”

The impact of practicing as a team every day was revealed when the men traveled to Halifax to compete in the Nova Scotia Open in November. The resident team split into two teams – USA White and USA Red – and won gold and silver, respectively, after just two months of practicing every day as a unit.

As they improve Whitney, has been adjusting the players’ strength and conditioning circuits in the weight room.

“I have spent a lot of time coaching good form and proper technique in the weight room as well as emphasizing functional movement patterns and increasing range of motion,” said Whitney. “We have been focusing on correcting various muscular imbalances the athletes have with body weight exercises. The approach going into training has been to teach them how to become more efficient goalball players.”

Though most of their time is spent on the court and in the weight room, athletes work and volunteer when they’re not training.

“There’s not a lot of downtime” said Coach Boyle. “When we’re not on the court or in the weight room, we’re working, volunteering and teaching goalball.”

On weekends, Abel Del Toro works part-time as an associate at the local DICK’s Sporting Goods store as part of the Contenders program.

“It’s tough,” said Del Toro. “But knowing the other guys are getting up and putting in the same time and effort keeps me going.”

In addition to working, the men dedicate time and energy to their hosts - Turnstone Center and the Fort Wayne community. They offer demonstrations and goalball clinics on a regular basis for members of the community and Turnstone supporters. For Halloween, the team dressed up in costume and hosted a trick-or-treating event where children with disabilities from the surrounding areas could interact with the team.

“The best part about the program thus far has been the enthusiasm for goalball we encounter every day and the community involvement,” said Joe Hamilton. Hamilton travels to Indianapolis once a week where he hosts a goalball clinic for members of the community. “My goal is always to increase awareness for the sport and Turnstone is helping us do that.”

 “Turnstone is thrilled that USABA chose to establish their residence program here at Turnstone in Fort Wayne, Indiana,” said Mushett. “It has been a great opportunity for Turnstone to showcase an additional sport for people with disabilities and feature a team of elite level athletes that has already qualified for the 2016 Rio Paralympics.”

The U.S. was one of the first countries to qualify both their Men’s and Women’s goalball teams for the Paralympic Games through competition. The teams qualified at the 2014 World Championships in Espoo, Finland. Though the teams have qualified, athletes are still competing for spots on the roster.  Official team rosters will not be announced until early June.

Between now and then, select members of the resident team will travel to Canada where they will compete in the Vancouver Grand Slam (March 18-21) and to Rio for a test event and the Rio Men’s Open (May 1-10). At the 2016 Rio test event, U.S. athletes, including select resident athletes, will face some of the top teams in the world. Then, Turnstone and the resident team will play host to the 2016 USABA Goalball National Championships, June 23-25.

As the team continues to improve, they know the success of the program is in their hands – with a gold medal win in Rio.

“We’re pioneers,” said Walker. “Our success is going to make it possible for future generations of goalball players.”

While several members of the U.S. Women’s National team currently reside and train in and around Portland, Oregon, the United States Association of Blind Athletes is already working towards establishing a Women’s Resident Program. A similar set up for female athletes would give U.S. teams the opportunity to host teams from around the world at the Goalball Center of Excellence to further develop Team USA’s international standing in the sport of goalball.