A football charity that uses football as a catalyst to support women with their mental health has become a Her Game Too partner.
Wiltshire-based Kick Start FC was founded just under four years ago by Michael Cunningham, who lives with bi-polar disorder and mental health issues himself.
In the summer of 2019, he was coming out of what he describes as his “lowest episode” when he decided to speak to his GP about how to manage similar episodes more effectively in the future.
It was during this conversation with his doctor, and the research he carried out subsequently, that he decided to set up Kick Start.
“I discovered that one in four people here in the UK experience a mental health problem.
“I also researched the positive impact that exercising, socialising and building a support network can have on a person’s mental wellbeing.
“As an avid football fan, and having played Sunday league, I knew that football could incorporate all three of those elements in one place.
“It was at that moment I made the decision to build something for myself and others in my local community who were silently struggling with their mental health.”
Michael wanted to create a safe space within a football setting and thought hosting weekly group sessions could encourage people struggling to get out of the house to enjoy playing football, develop relationships and build support networks.
The football sessions involve training drills and games aimed at boosting participants’ self esteem and offering them a sense of belonging.
He made the sessions free, so nobody was excluded on financial grounds, and began fundraising, which also helped to raise awareness of the project.
“In February 2020, I held the first ever Kick Start FC football therapy session with just two people in attendance.
“Now we have over 250 people registered to our services.
“More and more people are beginning to appreciate the positive impact that playing a sport
or joining a community group can have on their mental wellbeing.
“Participating in a sport like football has been proven to help ease symptoms of mental health problems such as depression and stress, boost self-esteem and it can also help reduce anxiety levels.
“For some people, physical activity can be just as powerful as medicine or therapy.”
Michael acknowledges that talking openly to strangers about mental health can be daunting, but he finds football can provide a natural place for conversations to flow.
Kick Start sessions are designed to help attendees develop tools to build mental resilience and leave with a more positive mindset than when they arrived.
“The hardest part to any session we operate is the act of turning up in the first place, so each session starts with a round of applause by everyone in attendance to show a sign of appreciation for those who made the decision to attend.
“This is followed by a ‘team talk’ where we can discuss topics relating to mental health and talk about our thoughts and emotions.
“Talking is a great tool for tackling mental health and we encourage it throughout the sessions.
“After our ‘team talk’ we will break off into group activities that focus on releasing natural brain chemicals like serotonin or dopamine through exercise, passing drills that encourage communication and silly games that help build self-esteem and push people out of their comfort zones.
“Then finally, the bit that everybody loves, we play a training game which is always full of laughter, smiles and goals.”
As well as being qualified FA coaches, the volunteer facilitators of Kick Start sessions are also trained as mental health first aiders, so they are equipped to handle difficult conversations alongside delivering sporting activities on the pitch.
Not long after Kick Start launched, Covid-19 forced the country into lockdown and the pandemic added another challenge for those already struggling with their mental health.
“During the lockdowns, we started receiving emails and messages from women who were
struggling with their mental health.
“It was evident that the pandemic was a major factor and it was in April 2021, after the latest set of lockdowns lifted, that our team decided we needed to open a women’s only football therapy session to support these people.”
At the first session, 15 women attended and that number has continued to grow, with 117 women attending since the launch and females now making up 40 per cent of Kick Start’s service users.
“We have army wives who come to our sessions to tackle the loneliness they feel while their
partners are on exercise or on tour - some of whom have moved from towns far away and
have no social interaction.
“We have stay-at-home mums who have made the decision to attend Kick Start FC to give
themselves a bit of ‘me time’ and work on their self-esteem.
“We also have women who work in high-pressured and demanding jobs who attend our
sessions as it’s their only source of stress relief.
“Mental health doesn’t discriminate and it can impact women from all walks of life.
“At our football therapy sessions we have daughters, mums, aunts, nans, cousins - each bringing a unique story and with different needs.”
Michael hopes that partnering with Her Game Too will help to inspire and encourage more women and girls to become involved in their local football clubs to benefit both their physical and mental health.
Kick Start is currently planning an in-house friendly involving all of its female players to coincide with International Women’s Day in March and the women have previously enjoyed a group trip to St Mary’s to watch the Lionesses play.
“We hope that by building this partnership, together we can reduce suicide rates amongst young girls and women, challenge the stigma associated with mental health and the discrimination against women getting involved in football.”
Kick Start’s women’s only football therapy sessions are held every Thursday between 8pm and 9pm in Tidworth, Wiltshire, and they also have women attending their walking football sessions on Wednesdays between 6.45pm and 7.45pm.
All sessions are free to attend. For more details, visit www.kickstartfc.org