Clemson Para Soccer Goes Virtual

During this unique time in our history there have been countless webinars from 1 -hour chats to full day conferences. Notable offerings have include the United Soccer Coaches ‘Coaching through COVID’ series and the Move United ‘Leadership Series’ in May. During the last weekend of June staff at Clemson University under their Clemson Para Soccer program hosted a first ever virtual para-soccer course including practical components, presentations and group work. The concept from Professor Skye Arthur-Banning was a solution to meet the need of a previously planned in-person workshop that was due to roll-out in 2020. The pandemic caused Skye and his team to pivot and the result was a fantastic environment of learning, peer sharing and socializing. I noted the promotion for this event through social media and took the chance to join in thinking I might be able to share some Canadian experiences.

What I got was a whole lot more.

The workshop started on Friday evening with a ‘get to know you’ session that I found particularly important. Other than myself and the Clemson staff the attendees were all U.S. Military Veterans and so I quickly gained a respect for the experiences these individuals had lived through. There was never a sense of over-sharing between the attendees but a mutual sense of ‘knowing’ what each delegate had experienced and what they were dealing with now they had transitioned to civilian life. From their service in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam or Kosovo there were chances available during the weekend to just chat and I found it really important as an active listener. This workshop was important to them all as an opportunity to learn more about para and blind soccer opportunities and to network – sharing their experiences with Veterans Affairs branches and other sport programs.

Image shows multiple computer screens from each course candidate.

Saturday was a full day of personal development beginning with an overview of para-soccer in the two Paralympic formats of blind soccer and para-soccer (commonly known as CP Soccer or 7-a-side soccer). The workshop then focused for much of the day on mental health delivered by Jim Kirk and Jen Cox of Mental Health First Aid. Their program originated in Australia and focuses on the use of a proven model (ALGEE) to empower individuals by treating mental health as an injury, similar to how one would treat a typical injury with first aid.

Agenda for the Mental Health Workshop including the koala logo.
ALGEE Non-Linear diagram.

The program uses a non-linear approach to mental health meaning that each situation is assessed on its own merits and that while we may begin mental health first aid by listening and approaching the next steps are based solely on the needs of the individual at risk. The course instructors emphasized on regular occasions that just as a First Aid course doesn’t make you a nurse or doctor, then mental health first aid doesn’t qualify you to diagnose or treat.

Course instructors Jim and Jen did an excellent job of engaging the entire group through open discussion around a topic that is often difficult to talk about. However the openness with which the group shared experiences was impressive and you can’t help but wonder if the virtual platform made it easier for people to share compared with a classroom setting.

As we moved into the early evening on Saturday and now finding ourselves as qualified mental Health First Aiders we jumped straight into some practical work around blind soccer. Now I’ve attended blind soccer courses and I’ve delivered even more of them, but never virtually. With Skye’s direction and commentary the group followed along as Margaret and Danielle demonstrated basic techniques for control, passing, dribbling and shooting. At each stage Skye checked in with the group to see how we were getting along.

Margaret (left) and Danielle (right) prepare for the next instructions from Skye as part of the blind soccer demo.

A fantastic component of this course was the equipment provided to each candidate beforehand. As we started the weekend everyone was dressed in their orange t-shirt and purple baseball cap both embossed with the Clemson Para-Soccer name. In addition we all received an audible soccer ball from Handi Life Sport and a Paralympic standard eye shade to help everyone gain the full experience from playing without the sense of sight.

Equipment ready for the course including t-shirt, cap, eye-shades and audible ball,

So following a full day we finished with some discussion around blind soccer and in particular the safety elements around orientation and communication between players and coaches. The discussion carried on into meal time which in all honesty I wasn’t sure would work. Skye’s team had coordinated food orders for all of the candidates and staff through Grub Hub, and with people across three time zones I was curious to see if it could work. Everyone had provided details of a local restaurant and the food order they would like. This had then all been coordinated at Clemson and within 30 minutes we were all sat down in front of our computer screens enjoying a wide range of dishes and chatting openly about the course, about soccer and about life in general. A brilliant idea that built more group chemistry and something I will certainly consider doing in the future.

Food order in front of laptop with other candidates eating together.

Sunday started with a quick recap before we jumped into a high energy session of soccer led by Ashley and Shea Hammond from CP Soccer US. They didn’t disappoint with another hour of engaging practices for the delegates watching remotely and some great commentary as we saw skills and drills in back yards, front rooms and kitchens with equipment including line baskets, Lowes buckets and garbage cans.

Shea (left) and Ashley (right) chat with candidates at their facility in New Jersey prior to starting the practical component for the day.

The group then went their separate ways for the next 2.5 hours as we all worked individually through the US Soccer Grassroots course (30 minutes) and then the more in-depth 7v7 Grassroots course

Once all the candidates had returned from the 7v7 course and most with another certification to their name, we concluded with a healthy discussion around next steps. Attendees spoke positively about their interest in starting programs in their communities and in partnership with the local Veterans Affairs chapter. Others were keen to kick off blind soccer programs after hearing about fledgling programs in other parts of the country and the sense of support and networking, underpinned by the energy and influence of the Clemson team was evident.

This course demonstrated for me the overwhelming power of sport to provide a sense of physical, mental and social well-being. People loved being active and challenging themselves with blind and para soccer, they related to the challenge and sensitivity of mental health and self care and finally they connected with a common language of para sport in general and military service.

The weekend demonstrated to me that while personal contact, especially for the purposes of technical sessions, need to be done in person it was clear that with key elements a virtual training course like this can make education and awareness even more accessible and affordable for the masses.

1. The right tone of delivery: Skye explained to the group how each of his team had their strengths which assisted in delivering the course most effectively. The bigger picture was the overall tone and chemistry of the team which ensured no one was left behind and any issues that arose were dealt with to the side while the course continued.

2. Appropriate time for breaks: With each educational block lasting 60-90 minutes the candidates were able to give their complete attention for that time and then step away for a bio-break before returning. While people were fully absorbed in the course the fact that they were attending from home meant that life still goes, including letting pets out in the back yard and ensuring the kids are being kept entertained.

3. Social opportunities: Typical in-person courses would see candidates head for the bar or a coffee shop to catch up and talk at the end of the day or during a break. My experience has seen many great connections made in a hotel bar after a hard day in the classroom or on the field. By providing dedicated slots for everyone to hangout and with no sense of urgency to leave people felt comfortable and able to connect.

4. Guest Speakers: By bringing in guest speakers including Stuart Sharp, US Para National Team Head Coach, Ashley Hammond from CP Soccer US and two former course attendees the group were able to hear from many more different experiences. It gave a sense of the classroom being open for these guests to drop in, share their insight for an hour and then to leave. Again this provide more engagement.

5. Break out platforms: By diversifying the delivery of the course between two other platforms (Mental Health First Aid and US Soccer) the Clemson team were able to keep everyone engaged and alert. A course of this length delivered by only one voice or a handful can make sessions long and candidates lose interest.

I am excited to see where this course will go in the future. The pandemic caused the shift from the planned in-person courses to this first virtual session and while this has served as a great way to educate and engage it would still be great to see a personal gathering at sometime in the future. There’s also a great chance to loop back with the group in say 6 months time and learn how everyone is getting on, if they’ve used the equipment since or if any of the leads to join or start programs were followed up on.

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