A mother of a 21 one year old lad (at the time of writing) who happens to have Down’s Syndrome has passed me details of the Brighton and Hove Albion’s Disabilities Football Project.
Seagulls Specials gives children of all ages and abilities opportunities to play football. But the club, part of Brighton and Hove Albion’s Disabilities Football Project, is a lot more than that. What players gain and learn through their involvement in the club is often more valuable than the game of football itself. So what are they?
The chance to learn to play football is so highly motivating for many children, that it can be used as a vehicle to encourage and develop basic skills. Many children are still learning to play successfully and need lots of chances to practice sharing, taking turns, following rules and accepting that they can’t always be the winner. Waiting, good listening and following an adult’s direction rather than their own agenda are really important skills to master.
A lack of these skills is often the reason why a lot of children are excluded from other activities; getting the hang of these opens doors to lots of other clubs. Sessions for younger players focus on getting these right.
Many children and young people with special needs have difficulty mastering basic skills like hopping, balancing, catching, running and kicking. Football training naturally offers scope for practising these skills.
More than this, sessions give children who have poor spatial awareness, and appear clumsy, the chance to develop a better sense of themselves ‘in time and space’, their position in relation to other people and objects, and better eye-to-ball co-ordination.
Most children have some difficulty understanding what others say or making themselves understood. Coaches adapt their teaching and language to support a player’s listening and attention skills.
Demonstration, practice and repetition help young players develop a better understanding of spatial concepts like ‘in front’, ‘beside’ and ‘between’. Later, the same approaches help older players secure their understanding of sequences of events and more complex instructions.
Often children with language difficulties choose hobbies that are solitary and don’t demand a lot of language. Football generates chat. It’s our national sport, we’ve all got something to say and for our young people who find it hard to think what to say in social situations, it’s a good topic.
It’s easier to show an interest in other people’s views and not so hard to say what you think. Even players whose speech is unclear, or who have problems organising their thoughts, are motivated to talk about football.
The more they talk and have success at being understood, and holding another person’s interest, the more confident players become at speaking to others they don’t know so well.
It’s rare for disabled children to have a wide circle of friends. Many can only name one or two, or can’t say how they know someone is a friend.
Most children have some difficulty getting along with people they don’t know well and find it hard to make new friends in an unstructured, unsupported setting.
It’s easier to make lasting friendships with children and young people who play the same sport, for the same team. Some players introduce friends from their special school.
Being part of a team
It’s about learning to take both individual and collective responsibility for what happens. Players learn to see the bigger picture, and that working as a team will mean making chances for other players rather than taking them for yourself. It’s all good practice for young people who may have little experience of thinking strategically.
Playing football teaches children to play by the rules and to accept a decision they may disagree with.
Life is often unfair. We all have to deal with strong feelings when something doesn’t go as we’d hoped. A lot of children find it really hard to ‘put themselves in someone else’s shoes’ or have an overly keen sense of justice, and need plenty of safe chances to practice acceptable ways to manage disappointment.
Disabled children face particular barriers to taking part in competitive sports, so unless we create safe, structured opportunities to train and play, their fitness and stamina is likely to be poorer.
Special schools struggle to recruit specialist sports teachers and to find a big enough cohort of pupils of similar age and ability to teach team sports. For many of our children informal ‘kick abouts’ in the park with mates just aren’t an option: we worry about their vulnerability and safety. Anyway, who would they play with? Friends at special schools are unlikely to live near by and mainstream peers rarely invite slower, weaker players to join their team. Even very able players who ‘try out’ for mainstream teams are more likely to find themselves ‘left on the bench’ as difficulties making themselves understood are assumed to reflect their skill at the game.
The Brighton and Hove Albion Disability Football Project already makes a big difference to many children’s lives.
Over the next five years, the project wants to ensure that every child and young person in Sussex, whatever their needs or ability, will get the opportunity to play the game at his or her own level.
In Brighton and Hove this means:
- Further developing the Seagulls Specials
- Starting up a ‘girls only’ Seagulls team
- More football taster session in special schools
- Better opportunities for wheelchair players
- Coach development opportunities for players and volunteers
- Developing football for blind and visually impaired players
- More opportunities for deaf and hearing impaired players
- Further developing competitions for schools, colleges and day centres
- Encouraging elite players to follow the path of England trialists like Michael Ishola, Ryan Healey and James Horton.
Already over 150 children and young people aged from 5 to 19 with special needs play and work hard at Seagulls Specials. They train every other Saturday at Portslade Leisure Centre.
For further information and for contact details plese visit the Seagulls Special website.