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Captaining and Coaching GoalBall with Murray Elbourn

Murray was a keen athlete and then at fourteen years old he developed cataracts. Murray transitioned his love of sport to GoalBall and eventually went on to represent Australia. GoalBall? Murray calls it “Reverse dodgeball”… Instead of getting out of the way you actually get in the way of the ball being thrown at you. Sounds intense! Murray played at the Australian representative level for 10 years and has since transitioned to coaching. We chatted to Murray about starting out in a new sport, staying motivated and how one-on-one coaching helped him transform from a state level player to a national player. Murray is also passionate about growing Inclusion Sports in Australia.

Finding GoalBall

How did you start playing GoalBall? I use to attend Vision Australia camps as a child, through my teenage years. GoalBall came along and there were two Australian players and the Australian Men’s Coach who came to one of the camps and did an activity session and I had never played before, so just wearing a blindfold and having something you could do that was a challenge as a teenage boy, and not able to play mainstream sports because of my vision loss, that was really important me.

I played mainstream sports all through primary and high school until the age of fourteen and that is when I developed cataracts and they expanded rapidly. I played competitive Rugby and Basketball for school and I couldn’t do that anymore. I had to find something else from a sporting perspective that I could do.

What is GoalBall? GoalBall is very brutal… I call it reverse dodgeball. Instead of getting out of the way you actually get in the way of the ball being thrown at you. It is a brutal sport, people talk about Wheelchair Rugby being called Murderball. Getting hit with a ball that is 1.25kg, going at about 90km/h, when you cannot even see it coming, you just have to rely on your hearing. That is pretty full on.

What do you remember about your first ever game of GoalBall? Probably how bad I was! I think just orientating around the court, when you are wearing a blindfold, is really difficult. If you don’t know how many steps it takes to get from on side of the court to the other or where your other players are, that was probably the worst part. Even though I didn’t have much sight, you still utilise that sight, so to take that little bit of sight away was even more challenging.

As a junior, who was the coach who influenced you the most? His name was Terry Carnahan, he actually brought GoalBall to Australia from the UK. He was a mobility instructor, he was the Head Coach of Australian GoalBall for about 20 years. I had him as my Australian coach and my NSW coach, so I was lucky to have that consistency for the first 10 years I played.

Transitioning to Elite Sport

What was the transition like into professional sport from junior level? We didn’t have junior divisions when I started playing. I remember the first training session I went to was at Lidcombe Hospital in their rehab unit. I had 30 and 40 year old guys belting this ball at me. For a 16 year old kid it was a bit rough, it did teach me pretty quickly what I had to do. So that transition from playing in the Sydney competition and learning the game into playing for NSW and then being selected into the Australian team, they were big step ups. It was a great challenge for me and I really enjoyed that step up. I was always a player that rose to the next step because I am very competitive.

You represented Australia for over 10 years, how did you keep striving and stay motivated to be the best player possible? For Australia, we didn’t play Internationally that much because we are so far away from the rest of the world and funding played it’s part. We would go maybe once a year to a national championship, international championship or a Paralympics. For me it was all about what the next goal was and the next mountain to climb, both on a state level and an international level. You watch videos, this was before social media, the coach would go away to an international tournament and bring footage back. I always studied video, so you knew what the rest of the world were doing and tried to model that on what my own game was.

Tell us about getting the phone call to play for Australia… I was pretty lucky, in my first national championships, I was named in the Australian squad. I was immediately put into that Australian squad, and made my debut in 1994 in the Asian Para Games. I was lucky enough to win the leading goal scorer trophy. That really gave me the taste for international competition. I remember playing in front of Dawn Fraser, she was the Chef De Mission there and the final was between China and ourselves and we beat them 2-1. For me, to have Dawn there for that game was a big deal, we walked into the stadium for the opening ceremony and there were 90,000 people there. It was just an amazing experience, to travel the world and play the sport that you love on any level.

Coaches and Mentors

As a professional sportsperson, who was the coach who influenced you the most? Terry Carnahan , he coache me in China and he was always around to talk to, even if he wasn’t my coach at a World Championship or the Paralympics. He gave me the building blocks and the fundamentals to be able to know the game and feel confident at that level. Even when he wasn’t my coach internationally, I would still have one-on-one training sessions with him. Where we would just work out for an hour, work on different parts of the game and that really helped me be able to achieve at an international level.

Have you had a mentor along the way? When I came in, there was already a couple of high-level Australian players. Kevin and Rob took me under their wing, they showed me the game. I learned from them and learnt how tough the game was, how to be resilient, the strategies of throwing and defending. I think that is really important when you come into a team environment in sport, to have someone who takes you under their wing and is a mentor towards you. That can’t be understated it certainly helped me a lot.

Have you had any one on one coaching? Terry Carnahan was actually the head coach of the Women at the time and I would call him up and say I have been coached by you my whole career and I really trust what you do with me and I want to learn this piece of skill acquisition for a different throw or a different defence style or just to try new things. We went up to a high school near Parramatta in Sydney. We would do one on one training as an extension, even though he wasn’t the coach of the state or national team anymore.

That was really valuable for me because one it gives you that extra workout, but he wasn’t in that team setting, so I didn’t have to share that coaching with 10 other guys. I actually got to work one very specific things and get that one to one mentorship and one to one instructional skill acquisition that I think is really important.

And that is why I am a real believe in one to one coaching, because it really did help me transition from being a state player and then taking the next step up and performing at that level.

Becoming a coach

You have won a number of championships over the years. What do you think a team needs to be successful?
I think about this all the time now I am a coach. As a player, I didn’t always understand why coaches did what they did. We had a National Men’s coach who worked us so hard, I never understood why we did three hours of physical activity with shuttle runs, but he wanted to us to be tired mentally and make decisions under pressure and to see how we would react. When you have a blindfold on and you are exhausted, the first thing mentally that comes to you, is your decision making. That’s why I think it is so important to understand that and be able to react to that in a coaching environment.

You are now a coach. Why did you decide to go into coaching? I love the strategy of coaching, developing game plans, trying new things and being innovative in my coaching model. I am a very technically driven coach, so the one on one coaching and session play, I get a lot more out of coaching someone one to one than in a group setting because I can focus on the key deliverables, how their body is moving and the structure of what they are trying to achieve. I think that is a real advantage of coaching plus the mentoring aspect, especially in the youth coaching. I have been very successful in understanding players, how to get the best out of them and the team environment and what that team structure should look like.

How has your approach been different from a player and a coach perspective? For me it is understanding as you grow with age, you understand why things are done. Now being a coach, and having gone through the player environment. It has really helped me to understand some of the critical decision making you need to do as a player. The advantage to me now as a coach, I don’t wait for things to happen in a game that will impact the team negatively, I actually see it about to happen and make changes before it happens. Having that ability to think as a player, of what is going on in the mind of someone who I am coaching has been a real success for me.

Having coached both junior and senior GoalBall teams, what is the biggest jump athletes need to make when transitioning? I think it is culture, going from a junior level where maybe your coach is a little more attentive or they care more as an individual or a young player wanting to nurture you. When you get into a senior environment, that culture is already in place and you are coming into it. It can be a challenge, for a young player to step into an experienced team that I have their culture, structure and model, which that player isn’t used to. I am a big believer in bridging between programs and having your junior program marry into your senior program, so those players that are coming through those programs have an easier time when adjusting to the senior environment.

You have coached all over the world. What is the difference from coaching in Australia to China and America? I was lucky enough to live in America and coach in America. The amount of participants, teams and competitions within American and China are far greater than we have here. That is a challenge, so they play more often, they have live in programs, where people with disabilities come in and live in a training environment, they do their education, schooling and training daily. The American team train twice a day, so they are doing 200 plus more sessions that the Australian team is doing right now and that is a huge advantage when you get to an International level. I am working really hard with the Australian Paralympics to look at that and a new model for that and how coaching plays into that in a structured environment. They are things we can learn from and implement the philosophy of what the programs are.

Did you ever go to a Paralympics? I was selected into two Paralympic squads, but because of injury I missed both of them. I have played in World Championships and Asia Championships, but I missed both the Paralympics I was selected for.

How do you as an athlete, handle that disappointment missing out on Paralympics? That is the biggest regret of my career, missing out on Paralympics. Having to deal with injury, was very difficult. My mentors Kevin and Rob had been to four Paralympics each. When we sit around I captained a World Championship, I medalled at an Asian Games, which they never did, but I didn’t represent at the Paralympic level. It is a challenge. I was in the squad for Barcelona, ruled out with a knee injury before Atlanta and then tore my left shoulder before Sydney, we had just beaten the European Champions Denmark, we were playing Denmark.The ball hit me and I tore the ACL in my shoulder and that was the Pre-Paralympic event and missed out on Sydney, which for me was my home games and that was brutal. It’s just something you don’t recover from. Two years after I was able to captain Australia in Brazil and we played well.

Growing Inclusion Sports

You are really passionate about growing GoalBall and many other inclusion sports. Why is this such a big passion for you? I am passionate about growing inclusion sports, because sport has given so much. It has given me the opportunity to travel the world, build confidence, set goals, learn and grow as a human through sport and active recreation. It is the competitive nature and if you have goals it helps you with the rest of your life. It helps with your study and work and that is why I am really passionate about it.

If children are looking to get involved in inclusion sports, where should they start? There are a lot of different agencies: Australian Paralympics, Sport Australia. At a state level, just google disability sports in your state and see what comes up and get involved in some way because there is a lot of opportunity.