Being El's Managers
In the summer of 2021, I had one of the hardest moments of not only my managerial career, but also my life. I had to deliver to the squad, after a big win, the news that El, one of our most loved players had collapsed at the Reserves game and was unresponsive in ICU.
Fast forward 12 months and that horrific moment has actually helped to shape so much within the culture at the club around autism and understanding how we communicate with players and staff who are autistic. We have gone out to seek expert advice on how we should be giving interventions to El if we can see that she is under pressure, we monitor her mood and mental health at the club and if these are scored low, we just allow El to come and play football with her friends without the need to coach or give her any learning points that session.
Our Psychologist is always on hand to talk to any players or staff that might be struggling but for me the best relationship to come out of this period is the one between El and our First Team Captain, Lauren. Lauren has taken El under her wing and used her previous training around dealing with autism within her day-to-day role as a teacher. El and Lauren have formed a bond that is unbreakable and also it has formed a line of communication to myself, and the other coaches, so if El was struggling one day and didn’t want to say anything, she would ask Lauren to tell us.
I have been ignorant over the course of my life about how to speak to people that are autistic, but El has changed this for me by me now understanding when to high five or hug her when she’s down, or not to touch her, or when to make jokes, or protect her from stressful situations. It’s unthinkable to imagine that out of such a horrific incident there can be so many positives, but I know that it has definitely made me a better manager and I can assure anyone that the club is now in a much better place to support autistic staff and players.
Over the next few months, we will be delivering club workshops around autism and communication. We will also be looking to add a scoring system into the pre-training wellbeing questionnaire for any players or staff that are living with autism themselves, or any family members. We might even open this up nationally and deliver a package via a webinar for other clubs, managers, coaches, players and parents to join in and learn together.
- Aaron ‘Smithy’ Smith, First Team Manager / Head Coach for Southampton Women’s FC
(Photography by Dave Bodymore)