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Walk the walk: Walking football is rapidly growing in popularity

Originally developed to provide a social and physical outlet for older men, walking football is steadily gaining popularity among people from all walks of life. Professor Terry Stevens, founder of Ymaohyd Walking Football Club, discusses the appeal of this new sport

by Professor Terry Stevens, Stevens & Associates | Published in Sports Management 2018 issue 3
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The sport is played with two teams of five or six players a side and does not allow running
The sport is played with two teams of five or six players a side and does not allow running

Is ‘slow’ the new trend? We have slow food, slow travel, slow money and slow fashion. So, when you hear about ‘walking football’ you might naturally assume it is part of this overall slowing down phenomenon. But it’s far from it!

Walking football is not only one of the fastest growing sporting activities for both men and women, it is also a sport that’s surprisingly fast moving, physically challenging, skilful and technical. Designed and adapted for those who can’t play or aren’t interested in playing mainstream soccer, this more controlled game has many tangible health benefits for people of any age. Indeed, being physically active as we get older is a critical factor associated with personal physical and mental wellness and health.

Led by researchers at the University of Aston in Birmingham and The University of Brighton, there is now a growing body of demonstrable proof that playing walking football can help:

• Build strength in bones, connective tissue and cartilage

• Improve posture by strengthening musculature

• Increase core stability

• Decrease fat stores by burning calories

• Improve balance and coordination

• Normalise blood pressure, improve blood flow and reduce stress

• Lower blood sugars

• Strengthen the immune system

• Improve social life, combat loneliness and support collaborative networks

It is widely accepted that walking football was conceived by Chesterfield Football Club’s Community Trust in 2011 as a participation sport, designed to help older men find a way out of loneliness and isolation. Today there are over 1,000 walking football clubs affiliated to The Walking Football Federation, the national governing body for the sport in Great Britain, with almost 2,000 members.

The sport, which teams play with five or six players a side, has very specific rules that outlaw both running and physical contact. There are also a number of very specific technical regulations now codified by the various national football associations.

Getting popular
The meteoric rise of walking football over the past six years is due to a number of factors. In 2014, Barclay’s Bank ran a television advertisement that featured the sport. Then in 2015 walking football was introduced in the FA People’s Cup as part of BBC’s ‘Get Inspired’ initiative.
In 2017, the Football Association of Wales and UEFA included a walking football competition in the celebrations held in Cardiff for the Champions League Cup Final, and the same year Sky Sports began televising national and international walking football tournaments.

As a result, walking football is now becoming a spectator sport as well as a participation sport. It is commanding the respect of national football organisations, with professional clubs across Europe establishing walking football activities for their community outreach programmes. And a growing number of walking football clubs are being established around the world.

This is inevitably generating demand for local, region and international tournaments, which have been held in Majorca, Brittany, Italy and the Netherlands. In 2017 Swansea University hosted the International Super Veterans five-a-side tournament and in Autumn 2018 the first official ‘home nations’ competition between Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be held.

The first women’s walking football competition took place in Preston in July 2017 to commemorate 100 years of the Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club – one of the earliest known women’s football clubs in England.

Walking therapy
The sport was originally aimed at tackling physical inactivity, loneliness and depression, issues that are often experienced by men of age 50-plus. But it soon became apparent that it appeals to a much broader range of markets, including women, younger people, ex-professional footballers and other ex-athletes, those recovering from sporting injuries and those looking for relief from stress and anxiety.

As Paul Murtagh, a 43 year old former local Shropshire league player who snapped his knee playing football when he was 20, told the Guardian newspaper recently: “Nobody stops playing football because they don’t like it anymore; they stop because they think their time is up, whether through age or injury”.

For Dean Curtis, a forty-something former soldier, life has been transformed through playing walking football every Friday night with the Welsh club Ymaohyd.

“Two years ago I was in a very dark place with declining physical and mental health, few friends and little desire to socialise,” says Curtis. “I can now count on over two dozen good mates.”

Entering the mainstream
Inclusive and open to all, walking football is an enjoyable form of exercise with multiple benefits. One of the leading advocates of the sport is Harry Hubball from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who highlights the opportunities for “frequent participation, team and community-building and cross-generational involvement.”

While still in its infancy, there are real opportunities for the sport to enter the mainstream. The media is taking notice and, increasingly, sponsors are being attracted to the access to interesting markets. As walking football picks up steam, it’s time for the general public to become more open minded about the range of people who can benefit from playing walking football, and to embrace it as a serious sport.

The story of Ymaohyd Football Club

Beginnings
“There has to be more to Fridays nights than this!”, was the consensus of 12 fathers (all ex-soccer or rugby players). They started Ymaohyd Football Club in 1982 for exercise, fun and to develop the use of the Welsh language in sport.

Success
During the years from 1982 to 2014, the club enjoyed its glory days. Over 300 players had become involved. The club was unbeaten in over 30 friendlies.

Despair
In 2014 injuries, old age, and grandkids to look after meant that numbers dwindled. The suggestion to try walking football was initially met with scorn, scepticism and derision, but finally the club decided to give it a go.

Revival
Soon ten players grew to twenty, the club received a Heritage Lottery grant to play walking football, the running football was revived alongside the new sport and the club’s strong social environment was restored.

Transformation
Ymaohyd’s walking football team quickly climbed the ranks, making it to the final of the FA People’s Cup in 2015 and the semi-final in 2016. They won the FA Wales People’s Cup, which was played in front of 5,000 people before the Champions League Final in Cardiff, and were 2018 winners of the Swansea City FC tournament.

Ymaohyd FC has a proud history of playing football and socialising
Ymaohyd FC has a proud history of playing football and socialising
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