Autistic youngsters revel with Club Brugge
Autistic youngsters revel with Club Brugge
Club Brugge’s Voetbalkraks project gives autistic children the change to play sport and feel included.
Voetbalkraks is an initiative run by the Club Brugge, one of Belgium's most successful sides, which gives autistic children the chance to play their favourite sport and to feel included in society.
The project began in 2007, when one of the club’s youth coaches, who is also a teacher, grew tired of telling youngsters to compete and began using his skills in support of autistic children instead. In doing so, he harnessed football’s special ability to help young people of all backgrounds to integrate and develop.
“The project provides children who are sidelined, in both a sporting and social sense, at many clubs with a structure in which they can participate, a team to which they can belong and where they can wear the colours of the club they love with pride,” Club Brugge Foundation coordinator Peter Gheysen, who heads up a number of community and social initiatives, told FIFA.com.
“They are part of a family and their parents feel that they are part of society too. They can play football, train every week and play matches, just like any other young person.”
Just like any other young person, but in conditions perfectly tailored to their situation.
“Our coaches are trained and selected specifically because they have the qualities that allow them to adapt to autistic youngsters,” explained Gheysen, who has been running the foundation since 2009. “Autistic children need a different approach in terms of structures and communication.
"For some, the slightest change to a programme can cause a lot of upset. The structure of training sessions and the repetition of specific movements and exercises can be reassuring for them. Our coaches pay attention to all those details.”
Having got off the ground with one coach and around ten children, Voetbalkraks now has no fewer than 16 coaches and a group of 60 boys and girls aged six to 18. With roughly one coach for every four youngsters, it provides the ideal setting for budding footballers who often need a one-to-one approach to aid their integration into groups.
“Football is the most popular of all team sports, and some autistic children find it hard to be part of a team or to interact with other children,” said Gheysen. “How do they behave with their team-mates, learn to win, accept defeat, respect opponents? Thanks to Voetbalkraks, they can develop as football players and they can also enhance their communication skills.”
Aside from running adapted training sessions every week, the club organises regular non-sporting activities to strengthen the youngsters’ sense of belonging to the Bleue et Noire family and improve their social integration skills.
Ranging from quizzes on the club’s history to educational workshops on the food professional players eat and the importance of eating a balanced breakfast, these activities are a way for children to learn without even realising it. It is knowledge they are only too happy to take on board, coming as it does from the club they love.
Though the main focus of the Voetbalkraks mission is the youngsters themselves, the project also strives to bring about society’s acceptance of a condition it often fails to understand.
“When someone is in a wheelchair you can see it, but autism is invisible," said Gheysen. "You can’t see it straightaway in children. That’s why we’re trying to give this team some exposure and organise events that show they’re people with talent and qualities too and who can play an integral part in society.”
The Voetbalkraks youngsters share regular training sessions with the first-team players, watch their matches and escort them on to the pitch as matchday mascots.
“We’re trying to change the image and perception that fans and society in general have of autistic people,” said Gheysen, who believes that there is no better reward for the club’s investment than the smiles on faces at the end of training sessions and the positive feedback from parents on their children’s progress.
“They often tell us that they can see them developing because every week there’s something that motivates them, that they can’t wait for, that makes them proud and gives them confidence in themselves.”
Although more and more Belgian clubs are setting up structures for people with mental disorders, only three of them run teams specifically for autistic youngsters. The work they do has a positive impact on the development and integration of these children and also shows that autism is not a condition that has to be treated but simply a difference that does not prevent them from performing. For Club Brugge and their Voetbalkraks, that difference has become both an opportunity and a source of great pride.
- A version of this article was originally published on FIFA.com. Read it here.