“Soundball is about believing that you can move. It’s about belief in yourself.”
1pm, Pathlight School. The school hall reverberates with the rattle and clatter of tennis rackets, and the conversations echo in the rafters. Yet this is not your ordinary weekend tennis match. A visually impaired player feels his way to the baseline and pulls a blind over his eyes. He then listens intently for the serve. Over the next few milliseconds he will judge its direction and height from the sound of the bounce, move to where his mental image tells him the ball is, and then swing the racket. But now- he listens.
Welcome to Soundball Singapore. It’s not much different from tennis, apart from one key distinguisher. Instead of ordinary tennis balls, foam balls with rattling bead cores are used. These are “soundballs”- balls made to be heard, rather than seen. The boundaries of the court are raised, so players can feel their position on the court. These enable the visually handicapped to join the world of racket sports.
What kind of person makes 30 visually impaired players and volunteers believe that the blind can play tennis? Kenneth scurries to organize warmups, while greeting each of the players and volunteers by name. He tells us that he’s not the one who started Soundball (it was started by Sook Zhen, who brought it over from Japan), and walks over to encourage a new player who just made a perfect serve over the net. He tells us about his vision.
This is Kenneth, and he is Singapore.
Video story of Kenneth by Our Better World – simple, powerful stories that will make your heart smile and spirit soar.
How did Soundball come about and how are you involved?
Soundball was started in Singapore by Sook Zhen in 2011, after she saw people playing it in Japan. We had only one player and one coach then. And no funds! We started out in the SAVH campus, in the outdoor shelter there. The ground was quite uneven, and it wasn’t so good because our players depend on the ball bouncing predictably. You listen to the ball coming this way- but when you swing the racket, it’s not there! And it had a zinc roof, and when it rained, you couldn’t hear the balls bounce. So we had to find a new venue. We were quite lucky when Pathlight allowed us to be here. We’re very grateful.
We’ve now got a growing number of players, as well as coaches and volunteers who come each week. In fact, there are a few current and former national team tennis players who help out as coaches. The player’s skills have improved a lot since they first started, and they’re consistently getting better. And we’re learning how to teach the game better, as we develop new drills and methods of coaching.
What does it take to train your players to play Soundball?
It’s about making the blind lose their fear of moving. It’s very hard for the blind to move. They’re scared of moving. They’ve had so many bad experiences- walking into lampposts, having pranks played on them, falling down. For us, the first thing we have to do is to make them lose their fear of moving. Just move confidently! You won’t get hurt. It’s all about that fundamental mental leap. Soundball is about believing that you can move. It’s about belief in yourself. You hit the ball, because you believe you can.
Imagine you’re born blind. You’ve never seen a game of tennis. You’ve never seen Roger Federer swinging his racket. How am I going to teach you to play tennis? It’s very difficult conceptually. When they’re in the learning stage, our players visualize four boxes in the opposite court to hit into. The more advanced players visualize up to nine boxes. They hit the ball over, and we tell them which box it landed it. They develop court intuition that way.
A lot of the players, when they come to us, are easily exhausted as they’ve never engaged in physical activity before. The visually impaired are generally discouraged from taking part in sporting activities, so for many of them it’s the first time they’re playing a sport. They’ve had to build up stamina and strength, but many of them are able to run marathons. That lady over there (gestures) just did a triathalon!
What is your overall vision?
I want Soundball to be an official sport in the Paralympics. Maybe in 2020, maybe much further along than that. It’ll take a long time for that to happen- it takes 7, maybe more years of practice for a player to play Soundball. And we’ve got to spread Soundball, because you need 20 or more countries to be playing that game to make it recognized at the Paralympics.
Within Singapore we’ve also been working to encourage children who are visually handicapped- whether fully blind or partially blind- to participate in sports. We’ve been reaching out through schools, and word of mouth.
I want to build a sports hub for the blind. We’ve been working with Running Hour to partner volunteers with the visually handicapped, to run. Some go on to run marathons. We’ve also been working at rock climbing for the visually handicapped- it turns out they’re better at it than most people, because they’re not afraid of heights because they can’t see how high they are. And we’re also working on a bunch of other things- dragon boating, swimming, all that. There’s so many things we can do!