Person with learning difficulties enjoying sport activities

The Importance of Sport

The importance of sport for people with learning disabilities or autism, even in a virtual world.

The benefits of sport are there for us all to see. Apart from the obvious enrichment of our health, fitness and wellbeing, there is the social aspect too. Mixing with likeminded people, making new friends and enjoying the communal experience of participation should never be underestimated.

For those people with a learning disability or autism however, sport that is truly inclusive has always been difficult to access. Barriers such as social isolation, lack of money, no transport, or reliance on support, have often meant that so many people have been excluded and remain inactive. At Talkback, we do all we can to remove these barriers. Because when these obstacles are overcome, sport has a very real and positive impact on the lives of our members. And as well as the immediate benefits that sport brings, there’s an important long-term goal. Sadly, people with a learning disability have a life expectancy which is years below the national average. And sport can help to change that.

2019 saw the launch of the Talkback Sports Academy, with the aim of promoting an active lifestyle, helping our members and those we have yet to meet with learning disabilities and autism live a healthier life, make friends, learn new skills and improve their self-esteem.

A team of Talkback trained coaches work alongside local sporting partners in the community to deliver a truly inclusive programme. All sports are adapted for those with learning disabilities and autism to enable everyone to participate and include badminton, boccia, seated volleyball, cricket, tennis, climbing, swimming and futsball.

Now, quite naturally, you might think that lockdown would bring all this positive activity to a grinding halt – but no. Talkback has risen to the challenge and developed new ways of running online sport, exercise and relaxation sessions. The Sports Academy has been the driving force behind the hugely successful virtual dance and ‘wake up shake up’ sessions, as well as some great sports videos on Talkback TV

The Talkback virtual world includes sessions led by community partners, including Fight Klub (boxing), Cheerleading and Bollywood Dancing. The focus is on fun, increased activity levels, physical health and mental wellbeing. No matter what the group or ability, all session plans feature exercise, tailored to the capability of the participants; and many members gain the confidence and skills to continue to practise sports and activities in their own time.

For those without the technology to connect, Talkback has provided tablets with financial support from the Rothchild Foundation. With training and support, this has not only enabled members to join our virtual sessions and keep active, but also to connect with friends and develop new skills.

Since its launch, the Talkback Sports Academy has successfully encouraged a number of members to become coaches too, which has boosted their self-esteem and instilled valuable work-skills. Gareth, a 37-year-old care home resident with a learning disability, is a prime example and he’s proud of his title of Member Sports Coach.

Following advice from his GP to lose weight and control his cholesterol levels, Gareth started to eat more healthily and attend the gym for two hours a week. His home is integral in helping him plan his meals and encouraging him to maintain a good diet. At Talkback, Gareth attends the Sports and Good Health group, where he shares his knowledge on nutrition with other members. He now incorporates what he has learned on food and healthy living into his daily life.

Before lockdown, Gareth’s exercise consisted of attending the gym for two hours a week, along with a multi-sports session at Talkback. After lockdown, Talkback provided Gareth with a laptop to enable him to join the virtual programme, where he attends several dance and fitness sessions which help him to reach his goals.

The stress of lockdown has not been easy for anyone, but the regularity of the virtual programme, plus weekly Teams calls to review progress, really helps Gareth maintain a clear structure to his week. Simply hearing Gareth talk about his exercise regime is enough to induce tiredness in us mere mortals. What he has achieved is a lifestyle habit, that has not only made him physically strong, but also more independent, confident, and self-assured; a testament to his determination and enthusiasm, and also to the support from Talkback, his family and his home.

“Talkback helped me with my diet and exercise, and I like being a Sports Coach. I feel really positive, I love my life.” – Gareth.

Inside of us all there is a sporting hero waiting to get out. We’d all like to be a Lionel Messi, Serena Williams, or Mo Farah but, for the vast majority of us, they inhabit a different planet. Compared to them we are but dithering, uncoordinated amateurs; but that shouldn’t stop us taking part and enjoying the exhilaration and sheer joy of sport. Regardless of our ability or disability it’s all about inclusion; and giving everyone a sporting chance, whether that be in the real or virtual world.

(Behind every great programme there is a great team led by a person of passion – Helen Krauze, the Sports Academy trailblazer).

Tony Flower