This month we spoke to Jake Czechowski, head coach of the US women’s national goalball team and of the US resident global training programme.
Jake is one of the worlds top goalball coaches, leading the US women’s goalball team to multiple successes. Here he tells Goalfix that this success is down to old fashioned hard work, tactical innovation and the training structures he’s helped to build.
You can hear the full interview below, or carry on reading for a shorter version.
“It blew my doors off”
Jake always thought his path would lead him to become an American football coach but after witnessing a game of goalball at an adaptive sports camp in 2004 he became enthralled to the game.
“I stumbled into goalball. It was a happy accident, but I became fond of it immediately.”
After first seeing a kids game he managed to get along to see the USA women’s national team train. “It blew my doors off.” says Jake.
So inspired was Jake that he created a goalball club in Tucson, Arizon and badgered the then US national coach Ken Ambruster to let him come along to help out at training camps. By 2010 he was named assistant head coach for the women’s national team, and the rest is history.
Jake puts his instant love for the sport down to a number of factors.
“What I loved about it was the pure athleticism, the strategy, the excitement of the game itself. And it is a physical, brutal, high paced, intense sport.”
But he feels that the sport also gives a unique experience for spectators. Goalball is an auditory sport so during actual game play, the athletes are the only ones speaking to each other, the coaches the sidelines, and the fans have to be silent during play.
Jake says that, “the anticipation that builds, watching this amazing action going on, yet not being able to cheer, to sing, to chant until after a stoppage, creates an electricity in the gym that’s really hard to replicate.”
A technical sport
But it’s the technical side of the elite sport that was the real draw for Jake.
“It’s about taking your strengths and exposing the weaknesses of the other team and trying to maximise the intersection of those two things. That’s where game planning starts.”
And this side of the game has changed a lot since Jake has been involved in the sport. Previously he says goalball was a bit more sedentary. Players didn’t change positions very much. There wasn’t a lot of creativity to the offences and it was more of a power game. That’s all changed now.
“Defenses were so difficult to score against with a traditional smooth, hard throw that people said, ‘Ok, well, we can no longer get the ball through the fence. So can you get it over the fence?’ So you had the innovation of more bounce ball technique.
So then as a coach we have to figure out how to block this bounce ball. So then you adjust your defence, back and forth, back and forth. So the game evolves through these innovative processes.”
Jake says that there has also been a huge improvement in strength and conditioning.. “Goalball athletes now have a lot more access to training systems that are more on par with other Olympic and Paralympic sports.”
He says Goalfix has also played a part in the development the game.
“Goalfix does a beautiful job with with product innovation. We had a small problem in the world of goalball with with cheating, so they worked on eyeshade technology to help improve that.”
Aside from big innovations in eyeshades the availability of good quality affordable equipment has also helped to develop the sport.
“When I first got into the sport, the idea of having goals wasn’t even an option. So to now be able to afford high quality goals is something that we can use to improve our systems and our training through all levels of the sport.”
This means that the game has changed immensely over the last 10 years, “to watch the game evolve has been such a treat for me, the creativity of motion offenses, different types of throws with different over-spin, under-spin top-spin hybrid defenses, shifting defenses, and then trying to stay a step ahead if I can, what can I create for an opponent that they haven’t seen yet? As a coach this is what I truly love.”
Tactics and conditioning
So where does Jake look for his inspiration in creating new plays and tactics?
“I have no problems going outside of the sport of Goalball to find inspiration. I talk to my colleagues with Team USA. We talk strategy all the time and it’s amazing what similarities you can find from other team sports. And so we’re able to use each other’s ideas and inventions.”
But he also likes to think outside the court a little.
“One of my favourite coaches is Pep Guardiola from Manchester City, his preparation and his genius is in strategy. He takes concepts and he’s able to adapt them so quickly. So I try to gather something from people like him and coaches throughout the world.”
And he also listens to the real goalball experts, his players.
“I want players to be involved in the creative process. I’ve found that that the teams that I coach perform the best when they’re having fun and when they’re on the same page and they’re unified in their process. And so to allow them to add to that creativity, I believe helps us a lot.”
But his role of course also involves preparing the players, both physically and mentally, and his meticulously planned training regime developed over many years is vital for the teams continued success.
Perhaps surprisingly at the moment this involves 4 days strength and conditioning and just 1 day a week on the court.
“There’s no such thing as an ‘off season’ any more. We have training season and we have competition season. Right now we are in training season so that is heavy in terms of our our lifting, our flexibility and our power.”
But there is much more to the training than the purely physical. Interestingly Jake puts as much emphasis on the mental training as he does with the physical, to help players with high pressure situations, and the squad regularly works with a sports psychologist.
“Something that we say here on Team USA is pressure is a privilege. In order to be in a situation where there’s pressure, that means you probably done something right. But I want to give players the tools to handle that moment, to let athletes know that that’s normal.”
“We want to make sure that we’re mentally and emotionally as sharp as we can be. One of the things that I’m most proud of, in terms of just sport itself, is the ability to recognise that mental strength is just as important as physical strength.
We used to look at sports psychology almost as taboo, as a weakness, and a problem. I felt that that viewpoint was was completely inappropriate. I believe we were actually missing a huge piece of training. It’s no different than using a strength and conditioning coach or a dietitian.”
The final part of the jigsaw is film study, game analysis and data gathering, which Jake describes as essential.
“You’re looking for trends and tendencies. You take raw data, how many throws? Where are they throwing? What types of throws. But you’re also watching the little subtle details. How are other teams responding to adversity? How are they responding when things are going well? So being able to analyse the minute details, during film study allows me to better prepare.”
Shift in training
When they switch to competition season training they focus on tournament preparation and execution.
At the point they ratchet down the level of heavy lifting, going into more of high intensity interval training and more on court practice. This shift is three days a week of strength and conditioning, two days a week of practice, before eventually moving to four days of on court practice and one day strengthen and conditioning.
During both periods Jake always tries to set the tone for the athletes with his work ethic.
“What I can control is the amount of time and effort I put in, and the day to day grind. I try to put in a full day’s work every day. I am not going to let lack of preparation be a reason that we don’t get on the medal stand.”
And is this daily grind worth the effort? Of course it is!
“There’s nothing better than hearing your national anthem played at the end of a tournament, watching those last moments with the players celebrating on the court, because you know how much time they’ve put in, the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into those victories. It’s a true labor of love, I couldn’t ask for a better job”
Our thanks to Jake for talking the time to talk to us.
Goalfix supplies a full range of top quality goalball equipment for players, teams and tournaments.
New to goalball? Here is an introduction to the sport of Goalball
Listen to more of our interviews with adaptive sports players and coaches below.