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Blog: “Playing outside the box”

The English Federation of Disability Sport (EFDS) website features a blog post every Friday through the year. This week, Kate Williams, 35 from the West Midlands, talks about how she enjoys goalball as a powerchair user with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).

The Beacon Bullets goalball team during the GB Roadshow, where GB Women’s Assistant Coach Becky Ashworth and GB Men’s player Caleb Nanevie came to visit with the Euro Championships Trophies.

A few weeks ago, one of my teammates asked me why I play a visually-impaired (VI) sport, given that I am fully sighted. The question caught me by surprise and I waffled something about finding a sport that fit with my mobility limitations, but the conversation stayed with me. After all, it's a fair point: what is a sighted, powerchair user with ME doing in a sport that was invented for visually-impaired ex-servicemen?

Getting into goalball

Originally, it was a chance comment from a blind friend that introduced me to the world of goalball. He was discussing the game he had played the night before, when he turned to me and said, "You can move about on your hands and knees, can't you? You should try goalball."

At the time, I was still coming to terms with being a wheelchair user, so I just made some vague, non-committal noises. Fast-forward a few years, and I'm now a confident powerchair user. The chair is a massive help in terms of getting around, but there's no getting away from the fact that long hours spent sitting still were taking their toll on my hips and lower back. I needed a way to be active again – so I started doing some research online.

It was disappointing at first. Most "wheelchair" sports were for manual chairs, and designed for people with strong arms, good health, and lots of stamina. I realised then that, even though I was a wheelchair user, I needed to look beyond "wheelchair sports" if I was going to get active again. Swimming appealed to me, but I soon discovered that getting dry and dressed afterwards caused more pain than the swimming eased. Much as I enjoyed it, swimming regularly was not an option.

Adopt and adapt

It wasn’t until last August that I remembered my friend's comment about goalball. A bit of searching online soon lead me to the Beacon Bullets, my nearest club. I sent them an email message, explaining my situation and asking if I might come along to their next practice. The response was warm and welcoming - and when I arrived at the hall, the players made me feel at home right away. I discovered that I was not the only player to have mobility difficulties (although I was the only wheelchair user). I wasn't even the only sighted player. Once we were all kneeling or crouching in position, with our eyeshades on, there was hardly any difference between me and the other players.

The coach, who also acts as our referee, had some good advice for me about how to throw effectively despite not being able to put a lot of power into my shots. I learned how to listen to the court, tracking the ball and the other players. The most experienced players generally act as captains, supporting the rest of us. In the six months that I've been with them, I've learned a lot from everyone in the Beacon Bullets; and their support is what allows me to keep playing.

We practice once a week, for a couple of hours. While playing, I am so focused on playing well that the lesser aches and pains seem to fade away. Afterwards, I can feel a bit sore but overall I feel refreshed, physically and mentally.

My advice to other disabled people who are thinking of being more active is this – don’t be afraid to experiment. Consider what you can do, and look around for a sport or activity that will fit you. The best fit may not be obvious, so try different things. Most clubs and centres are willing to make accommodations if they are asked.

Goalball has had a big impact on my health - to the extent that I am noticeably stiffer and more sore when I miss a week. I've even become fit and confident enough to start visiting my local gym, although that's not as much fun as playing goalball.

Thinking back, that's what I should have said when asked why I play: because I can, and I enjoy it. Which, when you come down to it, is the only reason for playing any sport.

Want to find out more about goalball? Visit the Goalball UK website to find out how to get started.

The Beacon Bullets are part of the sight loss charity Beacon Vision – find out more about their work on the Beacon Vision website.

Image: The Beacon Bullets goalball team during the GB Roadshow, where GB Women’s Assistant Coach Becky Ashworth and GB Men’s player Caleb Nanevie came to visit with the Euro Championships Trophies. Kate on the far right.