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Coaching cerebral palsy football and putting a positive spin on disabled sport

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Sam Turner new

  • Frame football can be the next big thing in disabled sport.
  • A winning team: provides enjoyment and physiotherapy at the same time.
  • Cerebral palsy football gives players the opportunity to build friendships as well as confidence.
  • Lots of opportunities for people who want to coach disability football as the number of cerebral palsy clubs continues to grow.
  • Raising public awareness is the biggest obstacle facing Cerebral Palsy Sport.

After interviewing disability football coach Sam Turner, I am left with a hazy memory from my childhood of a man spinning plates on Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game. 

Just bear with me on this. Let me first explain that Sam works full-time as a National Football Development Officer for Cerebral Palsy Sport (CP Sport). He also works on a voluntary basis as Communication Manager for the International Federation of Cerebral Palsy Football. 

There’s more. He is coach of the under-23 Great Britain deaf football team, a learning disability and sport teacher for Mencap and a head coach at Leicestershire & Rutland Football Association (FA), where he has two roles: working at the FA blind regional talent centre and with the FA disability talent programme. 

He is a man with a lot on his plate. Like the TV entertainer spinning cheap china crockery on the end of a stick, running frantically from one to the other to keep them revolving at the optimum speed, ConnectedCoaches member Sam is never still as he juggles his many roles. 

It is why we are chatting on his hands-free at 8am on a Monday as he drives into work, enabling him to kill two birds with one stone and save valuable time.

Drawing on the positives 

I am keen to hear about Sam’s route into coaching, the new initiatives he is helping to coordinate at CP Sport, and whether enough is being done to increase opportunities and participation within the disability sport sector. 

Statistics are all well and good, but the media often zero in on the negative soundbites in order to get their message across. 

So, for example, the latest Active People Survey for Sport England (April 2014 – March 2015) shows 121,700 fewer disabled people are playing sport regularly. 

The June 2014 Active People Survey, meanwhile, highlighted:

  • 17.8% of disabled people take part in sport for 30 minutes once a week compared to 39.2% of non-disabled people
  • 72.1% of disabled people take part in no sport or physical activity, compared to 47.8% of non-disabled people.

While these sorts of statistics are valuable as a tool for driving home the message that more needs to be done, positive news stories can often be overlooked in the industry’s urgency to campaign for greater opportunities for disabled people in sport. 

Sam is eager to examine the other side of the coin, pointing out the success stories that, with equal levels of publicity, can likewise serve as an important tool for boosting participation and public awareness. 

There are two initiatives he has been working on in his role of National Football Development Officer for CP Sport that he is particularly keen to trumpet. 

‘We have been working on a new format of the game for young people who use mobility frames, or Kaye Walkers as we call them,’ explains Sam.

‘We have taken the game of football and physiotherapy around the use of the frame and put the two together. That’s what we’re rolling out at the moment: frame football. 

‘You only have to look at the success of powerchair football, which is something that started off in a very similar way. People wanted to play the sport, but there was nowhere to engage them, and they couldn’t really be involved. Powerchair is now an international sport.’ 

Frame football is still a long way off that, but the initiative is gathering momentum, says Sam. 

‘It all came about by recognising that there were these young people within pan-disability sessions (individuals with differing impairments playing together) who weren’t getting touches on the ball, who weren’t really being included, despite the best abilities of the coaches to get them fully engaged. 

‘It got to the stage where coaches were trying too hard to include them. They were allowed to have the ball for so many seconds without anyone tackling them or told they can have their own area of the pitch, and for me, that doesn’t really represent football opportunities for these young people. They want to get involved in tackling, to dribble the ball up the pitch and take a shot.’ 

CP Sport – which works with local clubs, charity FAs and professional clubs to develop the organisation’s grass-roots football programme across England and Wales – drew on its wide catalogue of contacts when launching frame football to the nation last year. 

‘We did a lot of engagement work with physios, coaches, parents and players, and that’s where the video came about that we have on our website. 

‘It was taken in June last year at an event we held at the National Football Centre, St George’s Park. We got a whole range of people together and taught them the idea of the format of the game, getting them to play and then getting feedback from the different specialists in the room and the kids to really hone down what this format should look like. 

‘It is about supporting the individual’s development around their physiotherapy. That is key to it. I’m quite a stickler when it comes to appreciating the game of football, and I didn’t want to change it too much. We put the necessary tweaks and changes in there to allow these people to enjoy the game, and now, the format of the game is starting to emerge. It is constantly developing but is growing as more and more people find out about it.’ 

The hope is that frame football will be big news in the years to come and will provide disabled people who have been disengaged from football with a route back in.

Sam Turner 2

A league of its own 

Another project Sam has been working on is the revamp of the National Cerebral Palsy Football League. 

It follows a shake-up of the Football Association’s strategy regarding their Centre of Excellence Programme for cerebral palsy football. 

‘Previously, Centres of Excellence operated an open-age male squad for players aged 16-plus and an under-16 male squad catering for players aged 12 to 16,’ explains Sam. ‘FA Regional Talent Centres (Cerebral Palsy) replace Regional CP Centres of Excellence and have a renewed and clear focus on the development of young players. 

‘There are five teams in the South and four in the North, who will compete in two divisions, and they will come together for the National Cup.’

Going nowhere

Still only 27, Sam is adamant he will remain coaching disabled athletes for the rest of his career.

While at university in Sheffield, shortly after taking his 1st4sport Level 1 qualification, he took a coaching disabled footballers course ‘just out of interest’. From that point on, he was hooked.

‘Once I got that qualification, I wanted to know what I could do with it and so started volunteering in a few places,’ he says. ‘From watching some of the international events and seeing at first hand the opportunities disabled athletes could progress to, and the impact that it has on the people who are playing the sport, I knew it was something I wanted to do.

‘Throughout my development as a coach, I have spoken with different football clubs and academies, and I have had the opportunity to go and work in some of the professional academies, and it has never been what I’ve wanted to do. It’s always been about disability football for me.’

For non-disabled footballers, it is easy to take the sport for granted. You can pop down to the local park with your mates for a kick-about at a moment’s notice or pick up a ball in the garden and start playing keepy-uppy. It becomes second nature, like getting in a car to drive to work, making a cup of coffee, texting your friend on your phone – simple, easy, enjoyable.

‘For the majority of disabled people, it isn’t only an enjoyable game of football, it might also be their one opportunity to build friendships with people who are alike to them,’ says Sam. ‘If they are in mainstream schools, they may be a little bit withdrawn and don’t get those opportunities to build friendships quite so much. When they are around people with similar disabilities, it builds their confidence. Regarding children with CP, playing football also acts as their physiotherapy.

‘Football, then, carries across so many different parts of their life. It has that impact with them and makes such a big difference to their lives.’

Sam Turner 3

Get involved

Sam would love to see more people follow his lead and get involved in coaching disabled football.

‘It’s something I really enjoy. It gives me a lot back, and there are a lot of opportunities out there for people who want to teach disability football.

‘We are creating more and more CP clubs, but there is a need to find extra coaches and volunteers. They might not have the experience or qualifications, but as long as they’ve got the passion and the desire to do it, that’s the key thing. We need more people like that.

‘I would like to see a lot more coaches choose to work specifically in disability football. It can be a stepping stone and a development within their career, but it would be fantastic to see more people choose it as their main route.’

Sam says the biggest obstacle is raising public awareness of disability football. One thing he hears time and again is: ‘I wish I’d heard about that earlier.’

The inclination is there, it is just lying dormant and needs to be roused by making the signposts more visible.

‘People wish they knew these opportunities were out there,’ says Sam. ‘We do try to utilise the various media to help them find out about it and are steadily chipping away, but more needs to be done.’

Sam's top tips

  1. In any setting, be it mainstream, disability or impairment specific, no two players are the same, therefore they should be treated, supported and challenged as individuals on their own personal learning journey.
  2. Turn your knowledge into challenges for the players you work with, give them opportunities to discover their own answers and in turn you will learn a lot more from them.
  3. It is easy to get caught up in all the many new ideas, methods and latest ‘buzz words’ in coaching. Pick out the good bits, improve the not so great bits and remember to keep the player at the centre of all you do.
  4. Inspire others by sharing what you do, why you do it, how you do it and how they can get involved too. Good people are the lifeblood of our sports and we always need more.

Next Steps

To find out more about the work CP Sport does, visit its website: www.cpsport.org

sports coach UK also has a number of workshops you can attend to help you become more inclusive in your coaching. Visit the sports coach UK website to find out more about these workshops.

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Comments (3)

Excellent article, thank you Sam, lots of good points ( I do know of the issues as I work as a volunteer with Sailability at All Aboard Watersports in Bristol and as the (part time & paid!) community outreach coordinator for All Aboard ), one of our very successful annual events is an annual 'boating party' for those with CP, their families and friends . Over 100 attended this year, it is a great no pressure way of inspiring existing CP sailors to instruct/mentor and of introducing new people - complex needs & able bodied to the sport, great party too. JK
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Absolutely brilliant article.
one evening a week I coach special Olympics from age 8 and upwards, athletes each having different disabilities from CP, down syndrome, hearing impairment, and mental health problems. each week I choose a different sport to coach, on Wednesday we decided to play football, whilst I was watching the athlete's play together I noticed some found it difficult to kick the ball so I put in a few different rules that are against all football rules, we used a large inflatable ball, athletes could either hit the ball using there hands, kick the ball low level height or bounce the ball, this was great fun, athlete's were so engaged, some were even heading the ball. We was trying to find a new name for our inventive game but because so many different sports was involved we couldn't decide a name.

I would love to get involved in more disability sports however you don't see many clubs around coaching athletes with disabilities which is really sad. Once a week I help coach disability athletics which again I love however not many taking part.
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I, a boating coach, and coaches from other sports, football etc, recently went to a Sportarray Inclusive Sport Training (North Somerset) session at the Gordano Training Centre to observe inclusive wheelchair basketball. Players followed rules, mostly to include everyone, mostly it certainly wasn't basketball ! Then Joanna Hardman, a Sainsbury's inclusive coach showed us how to modify other games - brilliantly. Great interaction & idea swopping and club/sport networking. Sportarray is a North Somerset council initiative & Ben Wicks my contact - well worth investigating to reach into other sports.
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