Football for everyone

A woman giving a ball to a young man who is holding his hands out.

Time for a game of footie!

For some time now, as part of our Sporting Sense project, we have been developing all sorts of sport and physical activities for people with complex disabilities – everything from swimming and cycling to yoga and dance. These are great because individuals can do these at their own pace, in their own way, and experience how their body feels in a sensory way.

We’ve also built up good partnerships with local sports clubs and providers to deliver these activities and had a lot of positive interest.

With some team games though – like football, rugby, tennis or hockey – it has been harder. There‘s more of a need for teamwork, dexterity and concentration. And whilst, there are lots of inclusive and disability-friendly sessions in these sports, very few work with people with complex disabilities.

So back in 2018, we set about developing our own sensory sports sessions for the people we support. The sessions needed to be engaging and accessible so that everyone could join in and experience the benefits of sport – and how much fun it could be. As part of this, we researched what other organisations might be doing in this area. We met with Special Olympics to find out more about their Motor Activity Training and the Bristol Bears Community Foundation, who both deliver amazing activities for people with high support needs, and were extremely helpful.

On the whole though, we found that very few other organisations were offering a sensory-based approach to sport – which meant that there was the chance for us to become pioneers in this field!

All in the game

We have good links with football organisations around the West Midlands, so decided to develop a football-themed programme, hosted at Sense Touchbase Pears. We knew that following a standard football session and making small adaptations would not work, so decided to take a completely different approach by identifying some of the key elements in football, namely:

  • A warm up
  • A tackle
  • A throw in
  • A goal.

Next, we broke these things down into their component parts. For example, the warm-up is about getting together with the other participants, getting used to the environment, and preparing the body and mind for the activity to come. The tackle is about using your strength and making physical contact with others. The throw-in is about stretching the arms and passing an object from one person to another. And a goal is about celebrating and recognising achievement!

A woman holding a football standing near a window edge.

Working with our Practice Development Team here at Sense, we then thought about how we could support individuals to achieve these objectives in an accessible way. For example, the warm-up could consist of moving around the space and high fiving one another or feeling all the equipment to map out where it is. The throw-in could be adapted by initially supporting someone to lift their arms above their head – and eventually progressing to holding a ball and passing it on to someone else. All these things could also improve someone’s social and team working skills, build their strength and anticipation – as well as increasing their confidence.

We were now ready to get cracking and pilot this new approach! Four people we support expressed an interest in taking part and, we recruited a member of Sense staff with football coaching experience to deliver the sessions. The group came together every Thursday over a six-week period and got stuck into the sessions, working alongside each other to complete the football tasks set by the coach.

How did it go?

There were some lessons along the way of course. At first, we had a very structured session plan but found that many of the participants wanted to take more time to explore the space and equipment freely. So the sessions were adapted and became more flexible.

One participant, Chris, really enjoyed this opportunity to explore the space and equipment and developed a number of key skills along the way. At first, when presented with one of the balls, Chris would immediately throw it away. After working on this for a short time, eventually, Chris began to open up his hand in anticipation, then tolerate the ball, selecting which textures he preferred to hold onto. Chris opted for a foam ball with a bell in it and a small bobbled ball. Carrying these 2 balls around the space, Chris was then presented a problem when he was offered a third ball. He had to decide whether to keep hold of his current items or trade them for a new one. Chris actually used his chin to try and hold the third football! This demonstrated to us that the sessions are posing challenges to participants that are prompting them to use initiative, independence, and problem solving to complete the tasks set.

We also asked the individuals’ support workers to evaluate each person’s progress after every session in relation to:

  • Strength, flexibility and movement
  • Skill development
  • Social interaction
  • Sharing a group environment
  • Independence
  • Recall and anticipation.

At the end of the six weeks, we found that everyone had made significant progress.

Just the start

There is still work to be done to fine-tune this activity and make it even better for the people we support. We will be running more sessions at Sense Touchbase Pears soon, before eventually rolling this out to other Sense services. We are also working with local football clubs to train them to deliver these sessions and will be producing a toolkit to support more people to offer sensory sport to those we support, as well as across the local community.

If you would like more information please do get in touch by emailing me at callan.barber@sense.org.uk

Thanks to the Practice Development team, Gaz Davies, Sense Residential Services and the Sense Active team for helping to get these sessions up and running.

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