How do you keep a team of walking footballers fit and free from injury? No, there isn’t a cheesy punchline to follow.
Walking football is becoming increasingly popular across the country. From friendly matches between pals to competitive tournaments and official leagues, the beautiful game is becoming more accessible for an older generation who love the sport.
Long gone are the days where kicking a ball about is but a distant memory for those nearing their 50’s and above, but how are these players able to keep up with the physical demands of regular competitive sport?
The answer is simple. An ancient exercise originating in India, yoga aims to increase physical and mental wellbeing by focusing on three key characteristics: strength, flexibility and breathing. For local yoga instructor Samantha Slade, the idea of a walking football team participating in the exercise is a no-brainer.
“I get this call from Eamonn Watson [Garstang WFC captain] saying they’re looking to take up yoga because they’ve been getting a lot of injuries and they think it might help them,” she said.
“We had a chat, and it was just ‘yeah, I can work with this’ because I’ve done lots of different training over the years, I had done an intensive yoga for sport training several years ago and I had focused on that for some time.
“He reached out to his players and got about 10 of them who were interested, and we got together, we did one session, they liked it, so they signed up.
“We did that until Christmas and when I started it, I didn’t know if they’d do a little course of it, but I spoke to them afterwards and they said they’d like it to continue in the new year.”
The 44-year-old has been teaching yoga for more than 15 years, and she believes since star athletes started taking up the exercise, more and more men feel comfortable giving it a try.
Slade added: “Over the years, I have seen we’ve always had fewer men than women.
“I think sometimes for guys, especially over 50 groups, they have this thing that yoga is for girls, and they’d look silly doing it, they can’t stretch, they’re not sure about doing it, there seems to be some severe reservation about it.
“If you look into the sporting world, you’ve got a lot of top athletes who are turning to yoga now and it’s brilliant.
“It really helped when people like Ryan Giggs started doing it, and even like David Beckham, Tiger Woods was doing it as well, they’ve been doing it and then that makes men feel like they can do it too.
“Breathing is the key to so many things, so they’re really enjoying that part of it and there was no way I was going to teach the physical part without that bit adding in, and we do a bit of relaxation at the end.
“They’re really enjoying relaxing as well, we all have busy, stressful lives and it’s nice to see them embracing that side of it as well because that helps your mental, emotional wellbeing, and you can learn to relax.
“By relaxing, when you’re doing your stretching, you’ll stretch further, and then if they learn how to stretch safely, they shouldn’t end up with as many injuries.”Samantha Slade
As well as the physical benefits, Slade, who worked in accounts before becoming a full-time instructor, says taking part in yoga can be just as beneficial for your mental health.
“Yoga helps you mentally probably more than everything else, without you realising it, because you’re slowing down, you’re taking time, you’re going within, you’re connecting with yourself, and we’re living really busy lives,” she continued.
“The breathing works with the parasympathetic nervous system, so you’re learning to relax yourself and taking yourself out of that fight or flight response.
“There’s a lot of people suffering with anxiety and stuff like that, it’s going to calm them down, you get people with depression and their energy is really low, so whilst breathing can help with relaxing and bringing you into that zone where you can think clearly, it also increases energy.”
Garstang Walking Football Club were founded in December 2020, and captain/player manager Eamonn Watson, 55, says yoga has become a regular part of the team’s training programme, primarily because of the health benefits.
He said: “After the first couple of months, we were falling like ninepins, you’ve got to remember, our youngest player is 49 and the oldest is 78, and the majority of us hadn’t kicked a ball for 30 years!
“The mind plays tricks on you, and you think you can welly one from 30 yards without warming up in your mid-50’s, but you can’t.
“It really is a way of improving flexibility and, to be honest, off the back of the national finals last year, we thought ‘what can we do to get better’, so little margins and all the rest of it, it wouldn’t do any harm and it’s been brilliant, honestly, it’s been fantastic for us.
“If pro’s are going to do it, why wouldn’t amateurs do it? I think those days are gone now.
“We’re all feeling better, stronger and fitter for it.”