How walking football helps people recover from strokes and get active

The format is tough to get used to but its popularity has grown rapidly over recent years, and it’s about more than just physical wellbeing

2 March ~ I work in Rochdale for the Stroke Association. In 2013 we began a series of gym-based activities in partnership with the council’s Link4Life service and one of the things tried was walking football. I knew it could be a great way to encourage people who have had strokes, many of whom have mobility issues, to get active again. On a more self-centred note, I also reckoned it might give me a chance to kick a ball again. I haven’t had a stroke, but in 2013 I was 55, struggling to get back to fitness and hadn’t played for 17 years.

Our group was open not only to stroke survivors but to anyone in the area aged 50 or over. Every Thursday we would turn up at the Central Leisure Centre, dressed in a dizzying variety of replica kit tops – I think the most exotic was Perth Glory. The sessions started with warm-up exercises by coaching staff from Rochdale AFC, who were remarkably tolerant of me and the one other player who admitted to supporting Bury.

A series of five, six or seven-a-side matches would follow. The main thing we had to adapt to was the basic principle of walking football – remember not to run. This is harder than it sounds, even for people with mobility problems. It is instinctive to chase the ball. It takes time, concentration and practice to get into the habit of walking. Interestingly, the first thing you learn is that ball control is more essential than ever – you can’t chase it if you lose possession, so you learn to have better close control.

As word spread more people began to turn up, and soon we were having up to 20 players, ages ranging from 27 – young people have strokes too – to 90. The transformation that took place in the participants was wonderful to see. The physical benefits of exercise are well known, but the positive effects on confidence, self esteem and emotional well-being are also obvious. Our games allow people who had given up on physical activity to rediscover the enjoyment of being involved, competing on equal terms. Over time players’ mobility and ability improved – some people who once used a walking stick found that they could manage without. The social aspect of the game is important too.

After a few weeks we were invited to a one-day tournament in Glossop. We stood out among the other teams as novices – our kit was matching purple Stroke Association T-shirts while our opponents all looked very professional in the kits provided by their local football clubs. (The Rotherham United side included Tom Charlton, younger brother of Jack and Bobby.) Surprisingly, we got through to the semi-final before losing on penalties. This in itself was a boost to our confidence and left the players eager for the next tournament. Talking to other teams afterwards was an eye-opener too – the Chesterfield team spoke of their tours to the Netherlands and beyond.

More competitions followed, including a memorable one in Blackpool played in torrential, sideways rain; and one on all-weather pitches next door to the Etihad Stadium – where the fact that Manchester City fielded three teams couldn’t quite guarantee them the trophy. Our group now operates two teams, and we do now have proper football kit.

It was perhaps by playing in tournaments that we discovered some of the pitfalls of walking football. It sounds obvious, but the game will only succeed if the refereeing is good. Quite often we found that running goes unpenalised. If this continues players become disenchanted and stop taking part. Also, it needs to be stressed that, other than the lack of running, it is just like football – crunching tackles, injuries and all. I personally sustained broken ribs at the Blackpool tournament, and other members of our squad have had fractures even in practice sessions. Walking football is supposed to be a “no contact” game, but basic instincts are often difficult to overcome – again, good officiating can make the difference.

Walking football has boomed in recent years – from just over 100 clubs around the country two years ago there are now about 800 – but the next stage will be crucial if the playing community is to be maintained and, ideally, grow. Chris Bainbridge

This article first appeared in WSC 361, which is available here