A neurodivergent soccer team is providing a unique space for players to socialise, exercise and most importantly have fun.
Sport plays a large part in Australian culture, with most weekends filled by the sound of whistles and sirens. But, for neurodivergent players, team sports are a lot harder to get the hang of, especially when there is no dedicated league for such players.
Randwick City FC’s Purple Hearts team was created to fill in a large hole in the community for neurodivergent people who would like to play sport.
Team manager Ben Folino, a passionate soccer fan with a history working with those who are neurodivergent, pushed for the creation of the team over a decade ago.
“I kind of noticed that there wasn’t anything for people with disabilities in relation to football,” he told Central News. “I thought, ‘oh maybe we should try and make ourselves a bit different to the other clubs, and create a stream for disabled soccer players’. And I always thought the club should be something not for the elite.”
Neurodivergence describes any difference in mental or cognitive function to what is considered typical, and is used as an umbrella term that encompasses disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder and down syndrome.
While the Purple Hearts provide a specific team for neurodivergent players, there aren’t enough teams to create a dedicated league, with the Purple Hearts having to play games in abled competitions which usually end in double digit losses for the Purple Hearts.
Purple Hearts player Tyson, who scored the team’s third goal for the season, expressed some frustration playing against non-neurodivergent players.
“It’s hard you know, we’re not playing other people with disabilities. So we’re the ones with disabilities, we’re playing guys that are 10 times more knowledgeable and that kind of stuff than we are.”
However, While there are some frustrations over no dedicated league, Tyson went on to describe the main goal of the Purple Hearts.
“It’s more about just having fun, I ain’t here to win. I mean we’re only here to have fun,” he said.
LISTEN TO THE AUDIO STORY OF THE PURPLE HEARTS
Although the team has provided a successful model for integrating neurodivergent players into their football club, Randwick City FC president Richard Baldwin hasn’t seen other clubs adopt similar strategies.
“I can’t see it. I think there’s pockets around, I think just generally there’s a resistance. Just from my observation… it seems to be separate.”
While COVID lockdowns have placed a hold on the season, and uncertainties rise over the introduction of dedicated leagues, the Purple Hearts have turned up every week for a decade to play and have fun; and will continue to for the foreseeable future.
Main Photo of Purple hearts player Max, playing against a non-neurodivergent team. Photo: Randwick City FC