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Growing the grassroots: Growing Goalball

Providing excellent opportunities for visually impaired people to get active, new CEO Mark Winder describes Goalball UK’s plans for attracting more players and setting up clubs across the country

Published in Sports Management Sep Oct 2017 issue 133
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Winder is excited about Goalball’s growth
Winder is excited about Goalball’s growth

Goalball was originally created to rehabilitate soldiers after WWII and is the only sport designed specifically for the blind and visually impaired (VI). Played with blindfolds and a ball with bells inside it, it’s open to all levels of visual impairment at elite competitions, and absolutely anyone can play at a club level.

As the new CEO, I’m fortunate enough to be joining the sport at an incredibly exciting time for the grassroots game. Participation has increased by 425 per cent over the last funding cycle, meeting Sport England targets two years early. With over 30 clubs across the country – double the number active in 2012 – more people than ever are experiencing this fantastic sport.

Though we didn’t have teams at Rio, we’re still capitalising on the boost that London 2012 gave us. Several of our current Team GB players point to the London Games as a watershed moment for them. Unlike many other sports, which have struggled to keep up participation, our growth has been remarkable.

Team effort
This success has its roots in our vibrant regional clubs and the dedication of the volunteers who run them. We only have a handful of paid staff, making our small army of referees and coaches vital to the grassroots game. We often say that when you take up Goalball, you’re joining a community rather than a sport.

By hosting regular coaching courses around the country we’re able to renew our reserves of qualified volunteers as well as giving the friends and family of players the chance to be more actively involved. A volunteer shortage is the most significant barrier to our expansion and their recruitment is just as vital as attracting new players. Consequently, a lot of our campaign activity is focused on promoting individual clubs in order to raise their profile regionally.

The activity goal
Centrally, we’re very much aware of the thousands of VI people who could benefit from Goalball. Only one per cent of VI people currently have access to Goalball facilities and training, meaning tens of thousands of people are missing out on the very tangible health, social and economic benefits through participation in sport – and society as a whole is missing out on the contribution they could make. Our goal is to reach as many of them as possible.

The south west of the country, for example, currently has no regularly active clubs, and the remarkable response we’ve seen to the new London Elephants club makes it clear that more are needed in the capital to meet demand.

New funding from Sport England will be vital to this much needed expansion. The Towards an Active Nation strategy, launched last year, aligned perfectly with Goalball UK’s values, and the subsequent £1.4m from Sport England will help us to meet our ambitions and those of the Government.

Educating new players
The level of inactivity among VI people means that we reach many players through organisations and services that are unrelated to sport. Schools, charities and local councils are all routes to reach potential new players. Higher-education providers, in particular, have been incredibly active centres for the sport. As well at the Royal National College for the Blind (RNC), universities such as Cambridge University boast incredibly strong teams that have inspired others to get involved. We’ll continue to strengthen these relationships with a particular emphasis on school outreach and junior programmes, in order to reach younger players.

In Goalball, blackout goggles are worn, ensuring all players have the same level of blindness. This allows anyone to get involved. By holding more sessions in schools, VI kids will be able to get active with their sighted friends, simultaneously destigmatising visual impairment and introducing new players to the game.

Branching out
We also hope to build on previous successes in engaging traditionally inactive groups. The additional £200,000 from Sport England has been explicitly earmarked with this in mind. With it, we’ll be able to run more of our incredibly popular ‘This Girl Can’ sessions and support new clubs with the cost of hiring venues. This will make it possible to branch out into lower socio-economic locations and to reach VI people who have previously not had access to sport.

Growth will often be driven by the players themselves. Due to our exceptional retention rate, many of those who are involved with the sport progress to a point where they want to branch out into coaching or running a club. Laura Perry and Dan Roper, Team GB players, are good examples. After training at the RNC, they moved to Cambridgeshire and founded the Fen Tigers.

Elite inspiration
To us, grassroots and elite play are intrinsically linked. As our GB players aim for Tokyo 2020, they’re inspiring a new generation of players.

Goalball truly transforms lives and our aim is to ensure every VI person in the UK has the opportunity to discover the sport for themselves.

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