Local goalball league keeps passions alive

Team USA youth players prepare to defend a shot at the 2023 USABA Southeast Regional Tournament in Smyrna, GA // Photo courtesy of Rohan Raman Student Publications

When Hal Simpson’s son, Matt, first discovered that he would completely lose his vision, Hal worried his son’s passion for sports would fade. Like many ten-year olds, Matt had just fallen in love with soccer and baseball. Now he was having issues seeing the ball as he dribbled. As a result, Hal signed Matt up for a local sports camp for the blind in hopes of keeping him active.

“I was never looking for goalball — I’d never even heard of it before,” Simpson said in a phone interview with the Technique.

The origins of goalball go back to the immediate aftermath of World War II. Physical therapists Hans Lorenzen and Sepp Reindl worked with many veterans who had been blinded due to injuries sustained in battle. To keep their patients active, they developed goalball in 1946. It caught on with recovering veterans but also spread among visually impaired athletes. 30 years after its creation, goalball became an event at the 1976 Paralympic Games, and its first World Championships were held in Lorenzen’s native Austria.

The game itself is usually played indoors on a volleyball or basketball court. Two teams of three take turns attempting to throw a ball — the goalball — into the other’s goal while protecting their own. The ball itself has openings where multiple small balls jangle and clash as it slides across the floor. That is especially important because all players, regardless of the severity of their visual impairment, move in darkness. They wear eye shades that block light and use their ears and voices to work with teammates. They can also navigate the court using tactile tape that comprises the court’s layout.

What makes it challenging is the level of teamwork, focus and technique it requires. Teammates have to constantly be communicating in order to block the opposing team’s shots — which can come at 40 to 50 miles per hour — and line up their own. That is all before actually throwing the ball itself, where players release the ball like an underhanded bowling ball at staggering speeds. According to Hal, the accuracy of the shot is the hardest part of the game since it marries player skill with coaching insight.

For coaches, the difficulty lies in breaking down the court into a picture the players understand. “The court is nine meters wide with points dispersed at each meter,” Simpson explained, “so if a coach says ‘91,’ they’re saying that they want to put the ball in the other corner. I’m always trying to tell players where I’m seeing gaps and tendencies.” Coaches also need to remain calm – they can’t yell and scream like in other sports.”

Matt’s aptitude for soccer began to manifest in goalball, and Hal wanted to do what he could to bring the sport to a wider audience. He began collaborating with the Center for the Visually Impaired, headquartered in Midtown minutes from Tech’s campus. Their STARS program, which consists of youth summer camps for visually impaired children, had been playing goalball for years with their campers. CVI and Hal formed a group of 40 to 50 kids all around 12 years-old to compete in local tournaments, including Matt. One problem – they didn’t have a coach. Despite lacking any previous experience, Hal be- came “Coach Simpson.”

“Our first tournament had mostly teams of high school juniors and seniors and we got killed,” he recounted, laughing. But the team grew — literally. Over the course of the next three years, the group gelled into a team of 15 and 16-year-olds, winning tournaments of their own consistently and going to adult tournaments. It led Hal to start a chapter of USA Blind Athletes in Georgia in 2008, which grew into the current Georgia Blind Sports Association.

Four years later, during Matt’s junior year of college, Hal and his players reached the sport’s mountaintop. During the national championship tournament in New York, they advanced through a challenging bracket before going up against a juggernaut in the gold medal game. The team they played had already captured three straight gold medals — and looked like it for most of the game. But Hal’s team proved they belonged, staying within one point with ten seconds left before the other team got a penalty.

With a chance to seal it, the ball didn’t bounce their way. Hal thought the game was over, but the other team incurred yet another penalty, and this time, Matt stepped up to take the shot. With seven seconds remaining, the former soccer player wound up and uncoiled his arm, firing the ball through an opening in the defense and into the back of the net.

For Hal and his players, it signified their journey from a group of 12-year-olds with no experience to a disciplined, focused unit that had learned how to win from their losses.

Since then, goalball has taken the Simpsons to places they never imagined. After graduating college, Matt worked for the United States Association of Blind Athletes to help players like him. His goalball career went global when he represent- ed the United States and subsequently won silver in the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Summer Paralympics. He also represented the U.S. at the 2020 games.

Hal focused on growing the game. Now with tournaments worth of experience, he’s worked with countless players and organized tournaments across Georgia. As the current director of the Georgia Blind Sports Association, his goal is to give visually impaired athletes a space to show off their capabilities.

“The main thing goalball allows a child to do is be part of a team. In school, the blind kid might be the only one in the school. The teachers don’t really know what to do with them in PE because they’re not part of the sports world in school,” he explained. “But really, just like in any other sport, the best goalball players are the ones who have the drive, heart and passion.”

As a testament to its power, Hal offers this example. “Recently, I met a fourteen-year old female goalball player who went to her first goalball tournament. When she got back, she wore her jersey to school because she was so proud to be on the team.”

Goalball still has room to grow, and Hal sees the need for volunteers. Staff volunteers for goalball tournaments play a multitude of roles — setting up courts, operating scoreboards, volunteering as line judges to retrieve out-of-bounds shots, keeping time and more.

For college students, it’s an incredibly rewarding way to give back. Whether a club, friend group or individual, playing or volunteering in a goalball tournament offers a new perspective on a life-changing sport.