Neuro-walking football: A conversation with a young female coach

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Issey Lee-Fisher is a level 2 football coach. She is currently studying a BSc single honours sport development and coaching course at the University of Worcester. During her first year of study, a close family friend was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Issey recounts, “He loves playing football and I thought, why not try and create something for him and others like him”. From here, she contacted her local FA football development officer, Ben Langworthy.

Ben’s dad is prominent in terms of support around both Parkinson’s and within walking football. He has helped set up Parkinson’s walking football teams and runs his own team in Gloucester. Ben and Issey had lots of conversations about various provisions for neurological conditions in football. Both coaches realised they knew Jim Mcgettrick (director at PACES UK), whose company has experience delivering coaching in the sport for adults with general disabilities. They approached Jim and quickly included him in their discussions.

The covid pandemic put a stop to their conversations. But Issey quickly realised that exercise was such a key aspect of people’s lives with so many benefits. This was especially the case for older people and those with underlying conditions. She took up with her contacts again and they became more determined to develop Parkinson’s walking football for local Worcestershire players. However, between these three partners, Issey explains, “they decided to expand the target group to include all neurological conditions”. After a lot of meetings and planning, the first session took place.

What is neuro-walking football?

The neuro-walking environment is just like walking football with some rule adaptations; no running, no overhead height balls, and minimal contact. These make it easier for people with neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s, MS, Dementia and stroke recovery to take part. Through the medium of walking football, players (particularly those with Parkinson’s) have benefitted from that magic motor memory when confronted with a football. Transformations from shuffling gaits up to the ball then producing scintillating first touches when on the ball have astounded players, carers and scientists alike. This mode of physical activity and performance is really taking off with an increase in the number of Parkinson’s Walking Football centers around the country.

Setting up the team

When the group set up their neuro-walking football team, Issey realised that the key things to have in place were; dialogue and support from her local FA, and help from another dedicated coach. This meant the structure and support were already in place for advertising and coping with queries and finances. Our young coach was also in touch with her local branch of Parkinson’s UK and completed an online course through them.

“There are no formal qualifications you need to deliver a neuro-walking football session. YouTube videos about adult physical activity and Parkinson’s, in general, were really helpful. Making you think about the differences in players and what to expect’ says Issey. Key to all of the neuro-walking football sessions is their specialist Parkinson’s physio, Joanna Eastough. It is common for players to fall over because of various mobility issues, balance and slow reaction times. Having the specialist physio there at sessions ensures that players are back on their feet safely. If there are other concerns then Joanna is on hand to deal with these.”

Parkinson’s walking football tournament at SGP

Walking football is becoming very popular, it is really starting to grow. Neuro-walking football is a very niche market. “Having seen the effects first hand”, states Issey, “I think it’s so important and it is only going to get bigger. Recently, the neuro-walking football team participated at St George’s Park in a Parkinson’s walking football tournament. There were 10 teams from around the country and a few players from America. Whilst most players were diagnosed with Parkinson’s there were also teams that had players recovering from strokes too.”

Issey Lee-Fisher and the Worcester neuro-walking football team.

Are there other female coaches and players?

I asked Issey how it was being virtually the only female coach in neuro-walking football. “I have to admit, there are a lot of men involved, although it is a very welcoming atmosphere. It didn’t matter that I was a young 22-year-old female coach talking to them all. There is definitely a demand for more female coaches across the entirety of football in England and the world. Getting more women involved in football in general and more specifically in the active aging side of football, would be great”.

In terms of players, Issey told me, “Our group are all 65 plus-year-old men. There are no rules that say women can’t play alongside men in neuro-walking football. But there are very few women players. We have had some women starting to take interest though. Our specialist Parkinson’s physio (Joanna Eastough, Twitter: @JCPDPhsyio ) has recommended our team to some of her clients. We are just waiting on our first female player here in Worcester. At the tournament”, continues Issey, “I saw two or three women, but it was very male-dominated”.

How can you get involved in playing or coaching?

The FA website advertises regular walking football. Enter your postcode into a search tool to find your local club. Those with neurological conditions can still play walking football. If you want to access a neuro-walking team specifically, this is largely word of mouth and through clubs advertising their teams.

The neuro-walking football team in Worcester has a Twitter handle: @NeuroWFW for further inquiries and would welcome more female players.

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