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Back if you need

Walking Footballer, Emma Bennett, talks about getting back into sport

I first heard of walking football when my wife joined a local women's team last year. She absolutely loved it, she told me all about how much fun it was and how everyone was so friendly and welcoming. This was perfect for her, she is someone who has always loved participating in team sports but felt too unfit to join a 'running' football team now. I was so pleased for her and loved watching her skip out the door every Thursday for her evening of fun and quite often, falling over.

This was sport ... Therefore, this was nothing to do with me, this was what other people do, this wasn't anything I paid much attention to apart from to listen and laugh at Helens stories. It didn't once occur to me to join or take part or that I could do it. Didn't occur to me that this could be something that I could love too. I didn't feel that I could add anything to a team sport, I felt that I wouldn't be able to take part, that there would be eye rolling at my lack of ability or knowledge and that I would be embarrassed. These have always been my deep seated feelings about sport.

When I was younger I was very active, dancing at least 3 nights a week, doing ballet, tap and modern at the local dance school. What I lacked in grace and elegance, I made up for 10 fold in enthusiasm - I loved it. I also, played a bit of obligatory sport at school during PE and even took part in some after school team sports such as hockey and netball. I wasn't at all sporty and didn't always understand the rules but again 100% enthusiasm – after all, I am tall so actually made a fairly ok goal defense in netball... I mean to say, I was generally just waving my arms about (no offence to any netballers... I know this isn't probably the prerequisite skill required but this was my 11 year old style and I embraced it).

When I was about 11, I fell and hurt my knee and this meant I had to stop dancing and quite often couldn't do PE at school. I probably could have done more PE than I did but it was a good excuse to help the teachers (I was always very good at being helpful) and it meant I wouldn't get moaned at for being slow or getting lost on the cross country (true story). Win win. This soon meant that as someone who loves food, who was now doing very little exercise, I began to gain weight.

I had always thought I was enormous throughout my childhood, due to being head and shoulders taller than every single person in primary school and a lots of people at secondary school, including most of the teachers. At primary school, the exclamations of "oh, isn't she big" from well-meaning teachers and parents, did little for my self-image. However, I didn't actually fulfil that prophecy and become properly overweight until I was 18 or so. This continued to be a problem up until February of this year when I reached my heaviest; with the help of my wonderful, ever supportive parents we were able to pay for me to have a sleeve gastrectomy and begin my weight loss journey. This journey just so happened to include a certain women’s walking football team….

By May I had lost 4 stone and was already starting to feel the benefits. This is around the time the craziness came over me and I rang Helen and said... "Do you think it would be OK if I came to walking football tonight"? I had never played football, could count on one hand the amount of times I'd kicked a ball and I wasn’t sure I'm fit enough for an hour – even of walking football. However, not knowing what to expect, I bit the bullet, went home, got changed into my 'sports kit' and head on down to meet Helen. Now this might not sound like a big achievement to many people but I can't tell you how massive this was for me. I would never have put myself in this position before, potentially open to embarrassment and humiliation.

Photos for the FAW Trust project

Helen can vouch for me when I say, I grinned from the moment I stood on that Astro turf to the moment I got back in my car at the end of the session. I absolutely loved it. I was surrounded by sporty people, in sporty clothes, by people who could play football (and play football well) and they welcomed me with open arms and embraced my rubbishness with fun and good humour. Me... The person that secretly, for the first 15 minutes, was ‘walking’ round aimlessly, not knowing which end of the pitch we were aiming for.

I have been going to walking football now for about 5 months and I am still loving it. I am still 'not great' but I am persevering and with never ending encouragement from the whole team, I might even be getting a bit better. I do occasionally score some goals and each and every one of them is as much a surprise to me as it is to everyone else. They are generally met with high fives, a round of applause and probably laughter from me. And do you know what? That's the thing that rings out from our pitch for that hour – laughter and encouragement, cheering each other on (oh and inappropriate humour from my wife generally).

On a serious note, I think the reason I wanted to write this post was to highlight the positives in everything I have experienced this year … weight loss, walking football and a combination of the two. I have now lost 7 stone and literally feel like a new woman, I have more confidence, better self-esteem, better self-worth and bags of energy. Before, I would enjoy nothing more than just going home and sitting on the sofa in my pjs after a day at work …don't get me wrong, I still love that but now I want to do other things too. I want to go out to meet people and socialise. I have gained the self-worth to not care about what others think as much. I have less anxiety about every situation I might find myself in and I am happy to put a pair of Lycra leggings (or some weeks my Minnie pyjama bottoms) to go and remove myself from my comfort zone and play sport. I even make everyone run round the pitch twice for warm ups now and have been to my first Wales football match. I was told it was a Women's Euro qualifier (I think) and it was great. I thoroughly enjoyed it and even understood some of the rules.

I am proud to say that I now know which end of the pitch my team is aiming for (generally) and I can sometimes pass the ball to someone on my team. Last week I scored a beautiful goal with an inadvertent pirouette (and a squeal), as they say, you can take the ballet dancer out of the ballet shoes but you can't make her wear football boots?! I don't know, something like that!

So thank you to The Women's Walking Football Team for everything you've done for me and for allowing me to be a part of something so positive. Watch out though, I may have been heard to utter the words, "maybe I could try training with a proper running, football team one day and see if I can learn some skills".

So for my parting words, all I have to say now is, "back if you need" and "I can't believe I missed that sitter".

Emma (centre) all smiles after another Walking Football session

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