Soccer for special needs players at Hong Kong Football Club offers life lessons valuable far beyond pitch
Programme teaches skills of the sport and helps participants become more independent and confident
After just a few minutes on the soccer pitch, Elaine Leung Yee-lam is drenched in sweat. She dries herself off and carries on.
Leung, who has mild Down’s syndrome, is focused on the game. Playing in the centre of defence, her role is not the pursuit of goals and glory but disrupting the opposition and protecting her own goalkeeper during an exhibition match on a blazing Saturday afternoon.
And in her efforts, she chips away at the mistaken belief that those dealing with intellectual disabilities spend their days in care homes.
Leung has been playing in defence for the Hong Kong Football Club Crusaders for a decade as part of a programme for players with special needs.
From blocking shots to tackling, Leung is finally getting the hang of how to play.
She is not judged by her ability because each player on the team, which numbers about 70, knows what it’s like to struggle.
Crusaders members all have disabilities to a certain degree. Yet none is getting any special treatment.
“Just because these players have shortcomings, we don’t segregate them by their disabilities,” says Nigel Merritt, 63, the squad’s head coach.
“Instead we set them apart by their football abilities, which means we put players at similar levels on the same team, doing the same drills so as to allow them to fit in.”
Merritt has been teaching soccer to children with special needs for more than 10 years. As the group’s leader, he has a unique strategy to keep motivation high.
“We just have to ensure that not only are the drill sessions enjoyable, but they are also getting something from the training and are not bored.”
What Merritt and the programme organisers want to see, he adds, is full participation. In the process, players can improve their fitness and motor skills, while enabling them make friends on their own. The experience “can really boost their self-esteem”.
Leung’s mother, Anny Pang, couldn’t agree more. She says she will never regret her decision to encourage her daughter to play. Since joining the team, Leung has been making headway, not just physically but also mentally.
Pang says her daughter knew nothing about soccer before the Crusaders and also never understood the true meaning of teamwork.
But after joining them, “she learned to be cooperative, listens to others and tries to digest the meaning of things,” the mother notes with palpable joy and pride.
And Leung has become more independent.
While many dread the end of the weekend, Mondays can’t come soon enough for Leung. She commutes by herself from her home in Sai Ying Pun to Causeway Bay for soccer training, which takes place between 6pm and 7pm on the main pitch in Happy Valley.
“It’s my favourite day of the week!” Leung says.
The players learn from coaches in the club’s junior soccer programme as well as volunteers.
King Leung King-yu, a 30-year-old master’s degree graduate, joined the programme as a volunteer back in 2012, and six years later, he has established a drill of his own.
“It’s important to befriend them first so you don’t make them feel you’re superior,” he says. “You want to lift them up to allow them to cope with the physical and mental demands of the sport.”
Instead of just demonstrating exercises during warm-ups and expecting them to precisely follow the instructions, Leung shows them a few times before they try together as a group. This approach, he believes, helps to “build a team”.
When they stumble, the players encourage one another to bounce right back up. For Leung, Pang says, this inclusive approach was a revelation.
“As a newcomer, I remember, she just stood there watching the others play,” her mother recalls. “But now she has come to understand her position in the team and her primary role during each game, and she engages in discussions about how to play with her mates before the matches.”
An exhibition tournament organised by the Hong Kong Football Club is held every year during Soccer Sevens. The event, held this year from May 18 to 20, showcased to the city how determined the players are to build their lives.