National Conversation on Sport: 'Every team sport could have a walking version'

When people think about sports for older people one of the first things that springs to mind is walking football, a version of the game that has exploded in popularity since it started almost ten years ago.

The first ever “Walking Football” tournament was held in Glasgow aimed at keeping people aged over-50 involved with football.

It started as a health intervention, with Ageing Well Coordinator in Midlothian, Vivien Wallace, using the game to engage older men who proved difficult to attract to health checks and social groups typically populated by women. A football was introduced as a break between discussions and, with Age Scotland’s support and funding, it has grown to now be played by thousands of people aged over-50 across the country every day with its leagues and tournaments.

Amazingly, perhaps, it took a lot of effort to get up and running among the football fraternity.

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“When we were speaking to football clubs at the start they didn’t engage with it,” explains Brian Sloan, Chief Executive of Age Scotland. “They didn’t really understand it and all they wanted to know who would pay for it.

“A charity was created to develop it with Gary McLaughlin a chairman - he was even recognised with a special award from UEFA in 2019!

“But, really, we just needed somewhere to play, and we have to thank the Edinburgh clubs for the way it took off. When we held our first tournament Hibs entered a team, and Hearts didn’t. Word quickly got round that Hibs had finally won a Scottish Cup - and immediately Hearts got in touch to find out how they could get involved!

“Now, we have a league - Hearts have won it twice - clubs are using it to engage their communities, and there are a huge amount of ex-players getting back to the clubs they love. It now has small clubs all over the country, in villages, towns and across cities, playing every week, and we are seeing them as a way for people to start socialising again after lockdown.

“The health and wellbeing benefits are massive and, pleasingly for us at Age Scotland, we’re seeing it bringing in a generation that often feel forgotten about.”

The success has led to new walking sports increasing opportunities for over-50s to take part in weekly activity, from walking netball, walking hockey and walking rugby to walking shinty, played by men and women together.

“Any team sport can, in theory, have a walking version,” says Brian. “Most of them lend themselves to it and it can be much more inclusive. We’re seeing the SFA get behind it now, and other organisations - not just sport but health and communities - are also developing similar activity because it is attractive to people.

“And it’s not just about older people either because we’re seeing inter-generational activity now with grandparents able to play grandkids and encouraging young people into sport at a pace that suits everyone, and with the fun!”