Sports are a fantastic way to make friends, exercise and develop skills – for everyone. This article from The Telegraph looks into one of the disabled sports clubs in the UK and the great work it does for the local community.
In a school gym in east London, a game of hockey has taken an unexpected turn. One of the players, who has, until this point, stood to one side entirely uninvolved, walks into the middle of the action, picks up the ball and carries it with a purposeful air towards the goal. Once there, he gently deposits it in the back of the net and returns to his place on the periphery with a growing smile of satisfaction.
But it is what happens next that is telling. None of the other dozen or so players voice any objection. Nobody shouts at him, nobody complains. The referee calmly removes the ball from the net and drops it back into the fray. And the game continues uninterrupted for at least another five minutes. Until the referee finds himself wrapped in an all-enveloping hug from one of participants.
This is the Waltham Forest Flyerz in action. Every Tuesday evening the local hockey club runs a session for more than a dozen youngsters with a range of disabilities. There’s a dad helping his daughter negotiate her way through the game on a motorised wheelchair. There’s a bunch of lads very keen to swing a stick, occasionally hitting the ball. And there’s Molly, a teenaged girl with Down’s Syndrome who spends most of the game hugging anyone who happens to come into her eyeline, usually the referee. All of them appear to be having the time of their lives.
“He’s in a mainstream school where never mind a case of being picked last for sport, he never gets picked at all,” says Krishanthy Narayanamoorthy, whose 12-year-old son Nirmiith has spent the game thus far doing his best to avoid the ball. “He’s autistic and has anger issues. But here nobody is judging him, he can be himself. Here he can be part of a team. Sure, he’s still absolutely terrified of the ball hitting him, but for an hour every week, out there, he’s free. He just loves it.”
For Helen Richardson-Walsh, the Olympic gold medal winning Great Britain hockey international, this is the very purpose of the Flyerz initiative. Started by the charity Access Sport back in 2012, the idea is to encourage hockey clubs to open up a disability section, coached by their own players.
“I remember the first experience I had working with Flyerz,” she says. “The whole of the GB squad went to a session organised by Midlands Mencap. Never mind what the kids were getting out of it, I was having such a good time. The kids were so tactile, so loving, so grateful that we were there, the level of appreciation was off the scale.” Since then Helen and her wife Kate, the former GB team captain, have become ambassadors for Flyerz, spreading the word across the country, hoping to increase the number of clubs involved from the current 15 to 65 by 2020. Given there are nearly 1000 hockey clubs in England, Scotland and Wales there is plenty of scope.
“The majority of the hockey family is very privileged,” adds Richardson-Walsh. “If we’re honest, for those playing at the top, we have it very easy. It’s only when you see what the sport can do for people for whom life is a bit more of a struggle, hear the stories about how poorly people are treated, how poor some of the opportunities are, that you realise what it can do. Come down here to a programme like this and you see how much this matters. For these kids to be able to go somewhere and just have fun is an incredible gift the game can give.”
Richardson-Walsh knows what she is talking about. Both her parents were special needs teachers. Growing up she saw at close quarters what sport can offer. Through watching the session across its 90 minute duration, it soon becomes clear it is not just the children who are having fun. There are half a dozen club players acting as coaches, referees and helpers. All of them are wearing broad grins.
“It’s been good for me, this,” says David Stark, a first team player at Waltham Forest who every week comes to help run the session. “Since I’ve been coaching this lot I feel a little bit calmer. My attitude is not quite as breathlessly fast paced as it was. To be honest, I think I’ve drawn way more from them than they have from me.”
Indeed such is the enthusiasm among the members to be involved, Waltham Forest have had to draw up a rota.
“It’s never been hard to get volunteers,” says Hani Theodorou, who started the coaching programme six years ago. “The first session I ran we had fifteen coaches and three players. It soon built up. Very quickly parents were saying this was a Godsend. There was literally no other sport for their children to do.”
This is the telling thing about disabled sport: the numbers getting involved are in sharp decline. Sport England figures suggest 10,000 fewer participated in 2017 than did the previous year. The brilliant Super Human campaign that accompanied the London Paralympics may have created no end of role models, from Hannah Cockcroft to Jonnie Peacock. But the problem lies not at the elite level, but at the grassroots: where to find something in which to take part.
“This is absolutely the only thing going on round here for kids like my son,” says Mrs Narayanamoorthy, who takes the opportunity of Nirmiith being productively engaged to catch up on some work on her laptop. “My older son was into hockey, and one of the coaches said why not bring your younger lad along. I said, well he’s not really one for sport. But he took to it like nothing else he’s done. Now we use it as a tool to help his behaviour at home. When he’s naughty we say, right no hockey and he calms down immediately at the thought of missing out.”
The thinking behind Flyerz is that every sports club has the capacity to offer such opportunity. Shamelessly borrowing from the Dutch approach – in Holland all hockey clubs have a disabled section, alongside veterans, juniors and women – the idea is to integrate disabled members. At Waltham Forest, the Flyerz were all kitted out in club jerseys. Several of the regulars are apparently so thrilled to be part of something they wear the shirts to bed at night.
“I think until now there has been a bit of anxiety among clubs about how to take this on,” says Richardson-Walsh. “But once questions are answered, it is a no brainer. The thing is, the rewards for those running sessions like this are as great as the rewards for those taking part. Everyone should be doing this. It’s good for all of us.” Meanwhile, in the Waltham Forest gym, the boy on the sidelines has once more just stepped into the middle of the game, picked up the ball and carried it over to the goal, celebrating extravagantly as he drops it into the net.