Towards the end of 2015, my husband and I launched Sense Rugby – a kids programme that adapts rugby groups and uses the sport to work on social skills, attention to task, behaviour, emotional regulation and learning abilities. While on this whirlwind journey that saw us get worldwide interest in the programme, we continually get the following question – Why are you using rugby as an Occupational Therapy programme? Or.. Isn’t rugby a little dangerous?
Well, what may seem like a slightly outlandish idea, actually makes perfect sense when you start to take the elements of rugby apart and adapt them slightly. Let me explain..
Allow me to shamelessly advocate for my profession of Paediatric Occupational Therapy to start with, as we could not possibly explain why this programme could be successful without highlighting what we do and how we do it.
Occupational Therapists essentially helps kids (and adults sometimes!) “do”. They help kids to function more effectively in the things that they need to be able to do every day. This could be playing with their friends, doing their school work, participating in sports or other community groups or managing their emotions. We don’t necessarily do this by practicing that particular skill, instead we work out the “why” behind the problem. We may look at the way kids process sensory information such as sounds, smells or touch. Sometimes we look at how kids move, breathe or use their muscles. All of this influences how children learn, socialise or behave. We do this because by analysing the way they do things, we can find where there may be a gap or a blockage which results in the undesirable outcome that you might see. We can then help by working on the area which contributed to the problem in the first place rather than just practicing a skill with the hope that it would get better.
One of our biggest roles, challenges, sometimes headaches(!) and passions are to help kids to find a way to self-regulate. What does that mean? It means that we try to help families and kids find a way to manage the turmoil some kids experience in trying to keep their bodies calm and alert at the same time. Conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Sensory Processing difficulties, Emotional Regulation Difficulties, ADHD, Anxiety, Global Developmental Delays and many, many more often result in a significant difficulty with achieving a ‘just-right’ state. You might wonder why self-regulation is so important? Well because without first learning how to do this, kids are often finding it near impossible to pay attention to their mum, teacher, friends or a group instructor. They may not be able to stop moving for long enough to sit down and practice drawing, writing, or just eat dinner. They may be exceptionally sensitive, aggressive or anxious and emotional meltdowns are never far off.
For some kids, the effects are severe. They may be so significant that they never make friends, learn or successfully form part of a group. For others, it’s just a little harder to sit down and concentrate in the classroom.
I know, I know, you’re wondering what this has to do with rugby! Well – guess what! One of the best ways to help with these above-mentioned difficulties is to increase the amount of physical movement in a child’s day. Seems simple right? The catch is that I’m not talking about just any physical movement, I’m talking about specific, resistive, proprioceptive input. Which is a very big word for activities like – crashing, pushing and pulling, wrestling, jumping, crawling, climbing, running, weightlifting or tackling.
Confused? Think about it – what do we do when we are really upset, anxious, angry or trying to concentrate?
We throw things, punch, kick, push, chew our nails, eat, pace around the room, chew our pencils, rock on our chairs, tap our feet etc.. etc..
What do all these activities have in common? They give us proprioception at varying levels of intensity.
What about when we want comfort?
We wrap ourselves up in covers in bed, we hug or we get a massage. We get deep pressure to our bodies to help our nervous systems to calm down.
Keeping this in mind… think about a rugby group. What do we do?
We run and tackle with all our force. (In this case, into a tackle bag and not our friends)
We kick, throw and push.
We lift weights.
And guess what? It’s all appropriate and encouraged in that setting. A child has the opportunity to get the input their bodies so crave, without getting in trouble for it. And in the process, they become regulated enough to allow them to concentrate more on what the instructor is saying, to practice the skills of throwing and catching without getting frustrated, to learn how to work in a team and sometimes just to practice winning and losing. We have a small window of opportunity to work on allowing them social and physical success, while learning new skills such as passing, kicking or catching.
I know what you’re thinking: So if it’s that simple, why don’t all kids function well in a regular rugby group?
Well, kids are not robots. They have individual differences and unique previous experiences that we have to work around. Essentially, they regulate in different ways. Some kids might be excessively anxious and need to know exactly what comes next in order to help them be ok with an activity. Some kids might find it really difficult to follow a set of instructions, so they need things to be very simple and linear in order to participate. Some kids find it really hard to coordinate movements that their friends find easy, making them feel frustrated and inadequate. Some kids might need things to be explained in very simple language, to help them to understand the instruction. The list goes on, but the good news is that if we can accommodate for that even just some of the time, we can help them achieve the myriad of benefits that come with being part of a team. The best part is – that achievement stays with them. It changes their perception of the activity which makes it easier for them to join a team next time they’re approached with the idea. Social success is a little bit addictive, as soon as kids experience it – they want more. Because of this, for us Sense Rugby is the spark before the fire. We create a positive experience, practice it, and in that way, facilitate kids to join in on a regular sports group later down the track.
Want to know more? Find us on any of the avenues below:
Facebook: Sense Rugby
Phone: 0421 229 069