Team USA goalball ace, Amanda Dennis, talks about preparations for Tokyo, the development of goalball and the importance of a strong defense.
Born in Atlanta Ga., Amanda is a world championship winning, two-time Paralympian and co-captain of the USA women’s goalball team.
Last November she relocated to Germany from her native USA, and describes the move as a ‘culture shock’ and while people have been welcoming, she’s felt the tension that goes with a society in lockdown.
“Everybody’s on edge a little bit. But overall, I think Germany is pretty cool. I love the bakeries.”
Listen to the full interview below, or carry on reading for a shorter text version.
The impact of COVID
Despite the challenges of emigrating during a global pandemic Amanda considers herself fortunate in a number of respects. Not least because nothing has changed for her in terms of her busy training schedule. This continuity of purpose has, in turn, also helped her settle into the cosmopolitan city of Berlin.
She has access to the city’s Olympic Training Centre and is allowed to practice there thanks to her elite athlete status.
COVID has of course had some impact on her training for the Tokyo games but perhaps surprisingly this hasn’t always been negative.
“It’s just being able to adapt and to keep rolling with the punches. This extra year gave us an extra year to become better, it gave us an extra year to mentally prepare, and it gave us an extra year to become stronger. A lot of us have gained like a tonne of strength coming into this competition season that we didn’t have previously.”
This situation is improving for Amanda who is now able to focus on sport full time after recently completing an MBA (and quitting her job to move to Germany) giving her greater time to concentrate on sport in the run up to the games.
But coping with competing demands on her time is something that she has thrived off in the past and turned her into the formidable performer that she is today.
“I’ve always been that person to strive a little bit further and take on a little bit more, which helps me be able to take a lot of stress. When I first started on the [USA women’s] team, I was in high school, and I was getting ready for my end of year exams. When I was in college, I actually took, 21 credits a semester, and the normal amount for people in the US is 17.”
Pushing to the next level
Taking things “one step further” has been a theme throughout Amanda’s career and no where is this exemplified better than in her approach to training. She was the first female goalball athlete to join the men’s training program. A decision she says has had a massive impact on her game and the wider squad.
“It changed my game tremendously, you get a holistic perspective. You have to learn to get hit with harder balls, you have to learn to move faster, you have to learn to adapt. And you have to learn how to open your mind to different kinds of strategies. It makes you smarter as a player… You actually have to try a lot harder, you have to use your brain a little bit more and do things that are a little bit more challenging.”
Now the whole of the women’s team regularly train with the men’s team.
“Before COVID, our team would have weekly game days where we would play the men’s team in our resident program. Those kinds of things push us a little bit further. I think that actually changed the way that a lot of the girls play. Because if you can play the men, and you can win, you can beat anybody.”
The emerging importance of sports pschycology
Another important aspect of team preparation has been utilizing a new sports psychologist. Amanda feels that the mental game is just as important as how strong you are, or what you eat, or, even as important as the on court training. The team has both individual and group sessions with the psychologists recreating situations or giving mental exercises, and even helping the team in their communication style.
“Something that we talked about was a breathing technique before games… kind of closer to meditation, you’re relaxing your body and doing a breathing technique, so you’re going into a game fully relaxed.”
A changing game and evolving systems
The use of sport psychology is one area of the sport that has developed dramatically over recent years but many other aspects have also made big strides. The sport has become more technical both in terms of tactics and the mechanics of the game such as throwing.
Coming into the game at such a young age Amanda has witnessed many of these changes and been at the forefront of developing new styles alongside the national team coach Jake Czechowski.
“When I came into women’s goalball, it was a lot slower. Now you’re seeing games where the ball’s moving faster, or the ball’s bouncing higher. Or teams are having different techniques for their defense style. So you’re having to think outside of the box.”
As the game and tactics have evolved Amanda’s also evolved as a player, along with the team’s approach.
“I was always a center. With our old coach the center blocked a lot of room. And so I always kind of resented playing center because I never get to throw and I had to cover all this room. When Jake took over our team, he wanted to change things.”
“In 2017 he created this new defense system and it gave the ability for the center to throw. That was like really big, because actually, a lot of great goals come from center.”
What Jake did was moved from a rigid formation where defending was almost the entire responsibility of one player (the center) and set piece attacks (coming from the wings), to a much more fluid approach that utilized the skills of all the players both defensively and in attack. This system really helped Amanda to thrive as a player.
“Everybody’s always involved in the plays on our team now, Nobody’s allowed to sit there. The defense game totally changed.”
But has it worked? Amanda is unequivocal in her answer, “We’re conceding a lot less.”
Amanda is a defensive minded player to the core.
“I would love to be a really great thrower. Getting a goal is cool, you feel great, but not giving up a goal is even cooler. Defense wins championships. If we don’t let any goals in, we can’t lose.”
Tokyo Paralympics and beyond
With Tokyo on the horizon not losing is very much her focus for the next few months.
“Our ambition this year is to win Tokyo. We’re so excited about the opportunity to play and compete. But we want to hear our anthem on top of the podium.”
But for Amanda her ambition doesn’t stop there.
“I definitely think a lot of us will want to stick around until Paris. And then for me, I think that I want to still play until 2028 until L.A.”
To stay at this level of performance for that amount of time is a tough ask but you can well imagine that Amanda, with her drive and ability to transform and develop her game will be winning medals for many, many years to come.
Our thanks to Amanda, it was great talking to her.
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