The Allstars forward wheeled away in celebration, having tucked the ball away and set off on a run, followed by his team mates. Up in the gallery, us parents looked at each other and grinned, eyes full of pride and emotion.
The event was the Special Olympics in Cheltenham, and the Allstars team was playing its first match, a year after it was formed – a joint venture between Allsorts, a charity that supports families with disabled children in Gloucestershire, and Rodborough Youth Football Club, the club where I coach.
The first year of the club had not been easy. Establishing a football team for disabled young people is not just a matter of providing the opportunity; it goes far beyond the ‘build it and they will come’ mantra, as any sports club looking to take an inclusive approach will tell you.
The club faced many of the challenges that Chrysalis Research uncovered in our work for the English Federation of Disability Sport (EFDS), on behalf of the National Disability Sports Organisations. We had been asked to explore young disabled people’s participation in sport and physical activity during the transition from compulsory education to adulthood. The project was prompted by the finding form the Government’s Taking Part sports participation study that less than half as many disabled people as non-disabled people take part in sport. The fall-off in participation is particularly pronounced when disabled people leave education.
Our research identified a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors influence participation. These relate to the widely cited COM-B model of behaviour change, and they are reflected in the experience of the Allstars team:
- Participation is affected by physical and psychological capabilities. A change in their condition can affect a young person’s ability to participate and this can lead to a drop-off in their activity. Lack of confidence and resilience can also be limiting factors. Allsorts understand this and provide helpers to enable young people to participate in the club meaningfully. The Allstars coach is a former GB cerebral palsy team player and works hard to develop the players’ teamwork and communication, as well as their technical skills.
- Motivation is also important. The Allstars players have their own kit, chose their team name and come along with their friends. There is a bond between players and a pride in the club that was evident when celebrating that goal in their first match. Players feel they are progressing and enjoy having the chance to compete against others. Allsorts works with the FA to provide progression routes for talented players into regional teams. Equally, players who don’t want to compete come along to play and feel part of something. The ultimate aim is sustained participation and enjoyment of football or physical activity in general, whatever level they reach.
- Creating the right opportunities inside and outside of school is important in young people establishing habits before leaving education. Links into the community are important and need to be fostered when young people are still at school or they could lack the confidence or means to access them when they leave. Allsorts activities are community-based and designed to offer as many opportunities as they can from an early age. More support is needed for schools and clubs so they can provide the quality of opportunity that specialist organisations like Allsorts can provide. The Allstars are desperate to play more competitive games but they are very few clubs for young disabled players in the region.
None of this is easy but, with schools, sports providers and community sports clubs working together, it is possible. The need is great, as the Taking Part research shows, and rewards are immense – as the player’s celebration demonstrates.