Interview & Text by Senichi Zoshigaya | Photography by Kenshu Shintsubo | Styling by Harumi Shimizu | Hair & Make Up by Taeko Kusaba
Seeing Without Seeing
What I've Learned from Goalball
Goalball. Just from the name, would you be able to figure out what kind of sport it is? Six people on the court, three on each side, throwing balls towards a goal nine meters wide. It sounds, on the surface, like a simple sport. That is, until you hear that all players on the court have to wear what are called “eyeshades,” a kind of eye mask that obscures your vision completely. The only thing they can rely on to “see” is the sound of the bell inside of the weighted balls. The players have to work in the darkness, getting as much information as they can from the atmosphere around them and the sounds echoing through the venue, to protect their own goal and infiltrate their opponent's.
Rie Urata, part of the Japan national team for women's goalball, was captain when the team won Japan's first ever gold medal for a team event at the London 2012 Paralympics. We asked Urata, the central figure in Japan's world-level goalball defense, about the beauty and depth of goalball.
It's important to put all three of our opinions together to get a more accurate picture, because we can never trust ourselves 100%.
Voices in the Darkness Beacons Amidst Anxiety and Doubt
It's a bit embarrassing for me to admit, as someone interviewing a member of the national team, but yesterday's Japan Para Goalball Championships was actually the first time I've seen people playing goalball in real life. Sitting there in the venue and actually watching the games play out, I noticed so many interesting things about this sport. Today, I want to ask you about what you as goalball players think about on the court, what kind of strategies you have, and just try to tease out what makes this sport so interesting.
Sure, that sounds good [laughs].
Everyone on the court has eyeshades on, but I noticed as I was watching the game that there's a lot of just teammates calling out to each other, coaches and people on the bench calling out instructions. The venue is silent, but absolutely erupts in cheers and applause every time a team gets a point. I find it interesting, the fact that that tension on the court is something that's shared amongst the audience and the venue as a whole.
I think our #1 priority is definitely communication. None of us can see anything, which means if we don't go out of our way to tell someone something, it might end up coming back to hurt us. And being too specific can cause its own issues as well. I remember in the early stages, we really struggled to figure out how to communicate as a team.
When you and your teammates call out to each other, is it usually about strategy?
It's about 50% strategy, and 50% upping motivation. We want the players on the wings, who are generally the ones who do the offense, to feel relaxed. When you have a few balls in a row that don't go where they're supposed to, it can be very easy to fall into a kind of mental rabbit hole. If your balls keep going out of bounds, you can either blame that on your own lack of control, or you can think, “they're focused on defending the outer areas right now.” Which one you choose can really affect the way you play. And so as a teammate you have to decide—do you tell them, “Stop throwing out! Get them in!” or do you say, “They're focused on the outer areas right now. Why not throw it closer to the middle?” In this sense, the way you communicate can really affect their mindset.
You use these calls to soothe the anxiety they feel from not being able to see what's happening.
Even between the player on the wings doing the throws, and the other two players, there can be discrepancies as to what the ball actually did—which player blocked it, with what part of their body. It's important to put all three of our opinions together to get a more accurate picture, because we can never trust ourselves 100%. Communication with the bench is key as well. We listen to what they tell us to fix and combine that with our own understanding of what's happening on the court. My position is center, which means I'm in charge of that kind of communication—it's a big responsibility.
That sounds difficult, especially when the circumstances in these games are always changing. What do you do when your teammates have different opinions on something?
The most important thing is that the person actually doing the throwing is confident in their decisions. Throwing a ball when you can't see anything is extremely delicate work. The tiniest blip in your confidence could throw you off and cause you to make mistakes—throw a high ball, for example. So generally the person who's throwing will make their own decision about what kind of throw they're going for, and only after they've thrown do we call out to them and share our thoughts. There's always calls going back and forth on the court, like “go here next” or “let's do this next,” but when there's someone on the court who doesn't respond to these calls, that can develop into a discrepancy between what they're thinking, what they're feeling, and the rest of the team. So on the court we all have to be 100% committed to making some kind of verbal response as to what we've heard and what we've understood.
Have there been times when you've trusted your own intuition over what the coach and staff are telling you? When there are clear differences between what they tell you—the people who can actually see what's happening—and your own intuition, are there times when you've chosen to believe yourself?
I trust their instructions. The reason being that I can't see anything, and as long as I can't see anything, I can't trust anything I “feel” with 100% certainty. When I receive feedback based on objective analysis, I'll make it a point to believe what they've told me, do it the way they've said, and think to myself, “oh, so this is what happens when it's like this.” It's important to do that to expand your repertoire.
That being said, there was a time in the past where I prioritized my access to the ball over anything else. But more often than not this didn't really work out, and it made me more prone to injuries as well. Of course it's important to trust your intuition, but I think in terms of growth, it's better just to listen to the instructions I get from my coach and staff, who are people I trust, and who've watched over me for so long.
We can't actually see what's happening, but we can ‘see' it. Seeing without seeing, if you will.
The Essence of Goalball
Listening for Sound in All Kinds of Places
Because you can't see your opponent, you don't actually know how good they are until you're standing on the court, receiving their throws.
Yes. We don't actually know until we receive the ball. At the World Championships, the balls that get thrown to us are so much faster, and the impact much more intense. There was a time right after I started playing the sport where we played against a team from Brazil, and they hit me really hard in the chest. And when the game was over, I found out I'd broken a rib [laughs]. Nowadays we have the guys on the men's team throw to us for training, and I think this is a big part of the reason why our defense is considered so good.
What things do you focus on strengthening in your training?
Of course we work on our physical strength and muscle strength, but I think the thing we focus on the most is just getting our “sight” in order, to get as close as possible to having the same understanding of what's happening on the court. We can't actually see what's happening, but we can “see” it. Seeing without seeing, if you will. The distance between one edge of the opponent's court to the other, where they're standing… We train for more accurate “sight” by having people drop balls in various locations on the court and learning how to listen for the sound. More specifically, we'll divide the goal—which is nine meters long—in meter-long increments, number them, and try to guess from the footsteps and where the ball was thrown what number the sound came from. Or, for example, we'll try to guess where and how the ball is traveling from the sound on the court, and figure out which part of our body we'll use to block it. This is the kind of stuff we work on in our regular training.
If you can see, you can stay balanced using what little there is in your vision, but if you can't see at all, you have to constantly make sure your movements are consistent. You have to come up with a standard for yourself if you want to perform consistently. That's why it's so important to know what your body is doing at all times.
In other words, you have to work on improving all different elements of your intuition. It seems difficult to have to retune this intuition when you go to a tournament and the floor has a different texture, or there's a different atmosphere in the audience…
Yes, everything becomes completely different. How high the ceiling is, where the audience is, whether there's a wall or not—all these things can affect how the sound echoes on the court. When this happens, we lose track of where the opposing court is, and can't face that direction. I think that differences in ability between teams actually comes down to how quickly you can retune your senses to these new circumstances in games and tournaments.
You said you listen for sound, but how much sound do you actually listen for during a game?
We can listen to the opponents' footsteps and breathing to see how tired they are, although when we're going into their offense, we can also use these as feints to confuse them. There are also some players who play with shin guards and protectors, which we can hear when the ball hits them, and which is an important element to consider when we listen for sounds. There are really all kinds of sounds going on during a match. It took me about a year after I started playing to be able to understand that [laughs].
Your first Paralympics was in Beijing in 2008, which was only three years after you started the sport. Do you remember how you felt at your very first Paralympics?
Honestly, I was just shocked. I remember thinking, “what if I make a mistake right here in front of the whole world?” and just being overwhelmed by how loud the audience was cheering… And in the end, I just wasn't able to handle that atmosphere. My body wasn't moving the way I wanted it to, and I wasn't able to do things I'd been able to do in my regular training. Sounds I would've noticed normally eluded me, and I found myself just going inward, inward, and not being able to sense what was happening around me. When I'm concentrating, I can pick up only on the sounds I want to hear, but when I'm not, everything becomes noise, and I can't help but hear all kinds of sounds.
Generally, it's considered pretty difficult for athletes to improve physically after the age of 40. Goalball though is all about honing your intuition, and in that sense it feels like there's a lot of room to grow even at that age.
Yes, it does. In goalball it doesn't matter whether you can see or not—as long as you're always aiming for 100%, your age doesn't matter. There's no such thing as a “perfect” match either. Even in games where we won gold medals, there were things I didn't know for sure, like where that one ball from the opponent came from. It becomes another opportunity to expand your repertoire of techniques. I think in that sense that a large part of being good at goalball is just gaining more experience and improving your sensory ability.
I can’t see, but because I can’t see, I notice sound. Through sound, I can see. I realized that my not being able to see wasn’t a negative thing—it was a strength.
Seeing ≠ Noticing Some Things You Notice When You Stop Being Able to See
You've been playing goalball for a little over ten years now. Looking back on your career, what do you think of the journey you've had, and the overall growth of the Japan national goalball team?
Discovering goalball really changed my life. I'd always been self-conscious about the fact that I couldn't see, and I thought of it so negatively—always comparing myself to people, thinking about all the things that other people could do that I couldn't. But in goalball, obviously, not being able to see isn't an excuse for anything [laughs]. You can't make a mistake and say, “Whoops, sorry, it's because I can't see!” That meant I really had to reevaluate myself and my own skills. I can't see, but because I can't see, I notice sound. Through sound, I can see. I realized that my not being able to see wasn't a negative thing—it was a strength. I really, truly became a different person after that [laughs].
You became a different person?
I don't know, I just really started realizing my own potential. People like me, we can't learn through sight. For example, we can't research the opponent by watching videos of them. So no matter how hard we try, it does take us longer to learn things. What we do is try something, get advice, make tiny adjustments—rinse and repeat, forever. It's made me realize that my being able to play goalball now is thanks to the work people have done in goalball before me, the knowledge that's been accumulated over the sport's history. Young players now are getting more of that knowledge than what I had when I started, so I think as a sport goalball is going to get better and better, at a faster rate than before.
I would think that for the Japan national teams to get better, it's also important to have more people get into the sport. Talking to you today, I get the sense that one of the benefits of goalball, particularly for people who for some reason or another—congenital or acquired—can't see or can't see as well, is that it really hones the senses. I personally think that that has a lot of potential to bring more people into the sport as a whole.
You're absolutely right. To expand on that, I don't think goalball is something that's only for those who are visually impaired. I think everyone should try it at least once. I've heard there are some schools that make it a part of their P.E. classes, and they've said the best part of it has been the kids realizing the need for empathy when they try to communicate with one another. They realize that when they're all wearing eye shades, you can't just nod in response to a question, or that it's dangerous to pass the ball to someone without making sure it hits the ground at least once. Goalball as a sport is full of learning moments like that. And isn't stuff like that important in everyday life as well? That's why I wish more people in the general public would play this sport, partly so we'd have more players, sure, but for this larger purpose as well.
You notice a lot of things you don't notice when you can see. The kind of things goalball players do on the court on a regular basis are the kind of things that are important in our lives in general, regardless of whether we have an impairment.
I think it's because when you can see, it's unnecessary—and so you don't do it. I think there are some things in life that you can only see when you stop being able to see.
Born in 1977 in Kumamoto Prefecture. Candidate for the Japan national women's goalball team. Center position. At 20 years old, lost sight in both of her eyes due to retinitis pigmentosa. Though she was depressed for a while from the shock, she soon discovered goalball and developed a passion for the sport. In 2008, only three years after she started the sport, she competed in her first Paralympics in Beijing in 2008, then won a gold medal at the London 2012 Paralympics. Came in 5th at the Rio 2016 Paralympics. Acts as a kind of guardian angel for the sport. Served as captain of the Japan national team until 2016.