In early spring sunshine, Luke weaves past teammates and opponents at our Douglas Eyre Sports Centre, looking every inch the fit and talented footballer. Luke is an intelligent and articulate young man with insights way above his years.
But things didn’t look so bright 18 months ago. In the middle of a personal crisis, Luke had loss his sense of purpose.
He was in a very dark place, experiencing depression, chronic anxiety and debilitating agoraphobia. Luke had dropped out of school, was on powerful medication and despite lots of one-to-one therapy, his life was on hold. He’d even lost energy for his life-long passion – football.
“You join a community”
Desperate for help, Luke and his father John discovered Coping Through Football. “I found new friends and a place where you are encouraged to leave your problems on the side-lines,” says Luke. “Coping Through Football is somewhere you go along to play football but, almost accidentally, you join a community.”
He says the project offered a place where support to improve his mental health was just below the surface. The inclusive and warm environment helped Luke come out of his shell and reignite his love of football. It was Luke’s bridge to recovery and the means through which milestones such as meeting new people and using public transport were achieved.
A year on, as Luke’s confidence and concentration have returned, he is busy studying A-Levels and contemplating a career in medicine.
“It has been amazing to see Luke’s progress,” says John. “We both shudder to think where he would be without the soft re-integration that Coping Through Football has provided.”
Luke cannot overstate the impact the project has had. “My medication has been reduced and I hope I’ll soon be able to cope without it,” he says.
“I experienced bullying at work which led to me developing depression and anxiety. I was doing some work on managing my anxiety when I saw an advert for Coping Through Football in the local paper. I was stuck at home not going out, not seeing my friends. At Coping Through Football, I saw people that were suffering more than me and thought we could support each other to get better.
When I first went along to the project, I was hesitant to tell people outside of it that I had a mental health problem because of the stigma. I cared what people thought about me.
Getting into work
The Coping Through Football Project Co-ordinator encouraged me to think about developing a career. I was confident about my football skills so completed the Football Association levels one and two coaching courses. I had to find a placement and the London Playing Fields Foundation linked me up with one of their projects to keep young people playing sport. The experiences I gained gave me the confidence to progress and think about my career.
I chose to train to become a teaching assistant as I had enjoyed teaching football. On the first day at college I was nervous but knew I’d get through it. Just like at Coping Through Football, I got to know the people and used to them, and my anxiety dropped.
I got a job at a school as a teaching assistant with young people who have learning needs because of the support I received from Coping Through Football. I coached one of the football teams and got Leyton Orient professional players to come and visit the school.
“Now, I don’t care about the stigma”
Then, in 2016, I applied to become a part-time Peer Recovery Worker for Coping Through Football to support participants in accessing courses, returning to education and employment. As someone who has progressed through the project, I can empathise with the participants and share my experiences with them.
Coping Through Football brought me out of myself. I apply what I learnt at the project in my work. I think about the positive ways to improve people’s confidence, like I did through the project.
Now I’m not hiding from anyone, I don’t care about the stigma. I’m happy to tell people about Coping Through Football and my journey to where I am today.”
Coping Through Football gave me some structure and I got used to expressing myself in the team. The way you play reflects how you feel inside. Sometimes you feel upbeat and you’re not thinking about anything and you’re just going for it. Other times you feel down and can’t be bothered. At Coping Through Football, we were all in the same situation. We had our problems but tried to understand each other, and just let people be and feel how they feel without judging them.
Sue and Martin are new grandparents – a great motivation for becoming more active. Martin works long hours as a painter for film and TV and Sue is an inspector of NHS services. The couple see being more active as a great way to invest in their health, manage their weight and cope with stress.
“Joining the led Green Hearts walk programme has given us access to a sociable and peaceful space at Douglas Eyre Sports Centre,” says Sue. “It’s given us the opportunity to concentrate on breathing and listening to the birds.”
The green space is on their doorstep but used to feel private and inaccessible. Since joining Green Hearts, Douglas Eyre Sports Centre now feels part of their lives. It’s a space which they have an emotional and community connection with.
“Walking feels therapeutic”
The convenience and immediacy of walking as a physical activity is important for the couple. Martin can go straight out to walk after a long day at work without the need to travel to a leisure centre. Sue can break the isolation of working from home by taking a restorative break in local green space.
“Walking feels therapeutic,” says Sue. “it clears the head and you can get rid of all the anxieties of the day.”
Green Hearts-led walks have been a great way for Sue and Martin to develop friendships with their neighbours. They’ve also provided a gateway into other Green Hearts activities. Sue now does yoga on a weekday evening and Martin joined the weekend beginners’ running group. Walking has become a positive part of the couple’s weekly routine and has helped them challenge and adjust their thinking around health, travel and community.
Both have also lost a significant amount of weight since they started walking, with minimal change to their diets.
“I now consider myself a walker in a way I never previously conceived,” says Sue. “For example, I use the car much less for trips to local shops and we’re thinking about the possibility of booking a walking holiday.”
Sisters Asli and Ebru are always searching for that ever-elusive balance between ‘me time’ and family commitments. Green Hearts activities at Douglas Eyre Sports Centre help the working mums make this a reality.
Asli and Ebru started going along to Douglas Eyre Sports Centre because their children attended Saturday morning football there. They considered themselves fairly inactive with no time or inclination to go to the gym. But, since hearing about Green Hearts, they’ve tried all the activities it offers, including walking, yoga and running.
“The timing and crossover of activities has allowed me to do things for myself as well as for the children,” says Asli. “It’s been amazing to have these Green Hearts activities. They seem to fit in like a jigsaw piece around life.”
Ebru says there is really no excuse not to go, with activities a three-minute walk away. They’re informal, inclusive and full of neighbours and nice people. So many people now go along to the activities that she almost doesn’t recognise people when they are not in their kit.
Green Hearts yoga offers a gentle, calm and supportive environment where people are achieving irrespective of their starting point. The beginners’ running group provides a different challenge, more specific goals and exertion in the outdoors at Douglas Eyre Sports Centre.
“It’s an amazing, big, peaceful space to run in,” says Asli, “tucked away but with beautiful sunset views of the lights of the city and Canary Wharf.”
The personal benefits of more activity are tangible. Ebru talks about a sense of post-activity satisfaction, feeling calm and having a clearer mind. She also reports quicker local journeys by foot and that previously onerous domestic duties have become effortless now she is fitter.
Both want to continue staying active and fit. Not only for themselves, but for the sake of others that share their lives.
“Once when I was considering not going to yoga after an exhausting Wednesday, my children intervened, says Ebru. “Please go, you come back a lot happier.”
“I now consider myself a walker in a way I never previously conceived. For example, I use the car much less for trips to local shops and we’re thinking about the possibility of booking a walking holiday.”