IT’S amazing what a kickabout can lead to.
When I started playing football as a kid on a pitch in East London with my brother and mates, I had no idea that I’d get scouted and spend 14 years playing professionally.
At that time, it was all about having fun, freedom, seeing friends and having a right old laugh. It’s been so tough for the boys and girls who have had to miss out on all that fun over the past year.
During the pandemic, 43,000 grassroots football clubs in the UK shut their doors as we were ordered to stay at home.
Sport England reported that last year four million young people were getting less than the Chief Medical Officers’ recommended 60 minutes of physical activity each day.
But it’s time to get alive and kicking again.
Today, as lockdown eases, outdoor sports opened up for youngsters and the FA gave grassroots football a boost by announcing £180million in investment.
Dubbed Survive, Revive, Thrive, the strategy aims to boost football recovery with 5,000 new pitches and a commitment from leaders to ensuring girls have the same access as boys to football in schools and clubs.
The difference this is going to make to young lives is huge, especially given that before this announcement, 12 per cent of grassroots clubs were saying they might not survive and 96 per cent of those clubs had seen a reduction in their income.
I can’t think of anything better for kids than a good kickabout.
Yesterday, I spent the day running the first McDonald’s Fun Football session with Jamie Redknapp.
Children come to these sessions and just play football and don’t think about anything else but enjoying themselves. Over the next year McDonald’s Fun Football is aiming to provide children aged five to 11 with five million sessions for free.
It is absolutely vital that companies, communities and the Government are doing everything they can to make sport affordable and accessible for families.
Last year I joined the Government taskforce to get youth sport back on its feet after lockdown.
At the start of my career football was my passion — then it became my profession. Now getting more kids playing sport is my purpose.
Most people think about the short-term effects of the pandemic on health, well-being and the economy. But what we need to take into consideration is how this is going to affect a generation of young people.
The past year has shown just how important our physical health can be — it’s an asset that we should never take for granted.
An hour on the pitch works your strength, agility and cardio. But, for me, physical and mental health are two things which go hand in hand — and across the board our mental health has taken a bashing since March 2020.
It has been particularly bad for children and young people who have had to go a year with a huge reduction in fun.
Terrifyingly, 83 per cent of young people said that the pandemic has left them struggling to sleep and with panic attacks and urges to self-harm.
Getting active has been proven to ease mental illness but there is a real social element to it as well.
Getting out and chatting to people might spark a conversation about something that has been worrying you.
Being in a team is like being in a family — that is how I felt at Arsenal. And it is a low-pressure, low-stakes environment where kids can open up.
Team sports have been proven to help children build character and develop those crucial soft skills too.
Turning up on time, working in a team, being responsible . . . these are skills you can’t learn from a book or a Zoom call.
And young people who are physically active are five times more likely to report high levels of confidence, something you sadly can’t bottle.
A team mentality will set up youths to achieve their goals when they get older.
OK, it might not lead to the World Cup or Olympics but if you want to become a chef, scientist or run your own business, you will need these skills too.
Sport opens up an amazing world of experiences and opportunity — and it certainly did for me.
During the school holidays, I used to go to a kids’ club that cost 50p for a week. We’d get in a minibus and go on day trips to see all sorts, and it was fantastic.
It broadened my horizons but if it cost more than that would I have been able to go? Probably not. And playing on my neighbourhood football pitch was where I was spotted and later signed to Arsenal.
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For me, having sport and activity in my life started a butterfly effect I never could have predicted.
From being an England Lioness in the World Cup to Strictly, there are so many things that strapping on a pair of footie boots has led to.
- Alex Scott is launching one million hours of McDonald’s Fun Football sessions for children as grassroots football returns across England. To find your nearest session, go to mcdonalds.co.uk/football.
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