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Crusaders Strikers shortlisted for Game Changer award after their incredible efforts in keeping 200 girls engaged during the pandemic


All inclusive: Crusaders Strikers

All inclusive: Crusaders Strikers

Danielle McDowell, head of female development

Danielle McDowell, head of female development

Instrumental Heather Mearns`. Credit: Kelvin Boyes

Instrumental Heather Mearns`. Credit: Kelvin Boyes


All inclusive: Crusaders Strikers

Working from home during the Coronavirus lockdown two years ago became so much of a norm that many have ditched the daily commute and the office for good.

Many other activities can’t be carried out in isolation though and for sports teams March 2020 was an extremely difficult time.

Not only were coaches completely in the dark over when they may see their players again, the best case scenario was that they didn’t know what condition those players would return in and in the worst case there were concerns that some wouldn’t return at all.

That’s when many clubs and coaches set about being creative in their endeavours to ensure that young players in particular had something to fill the long hours while restrictions meant they weren’t able to attend their regular training sessions.

The challenge of keeping over 200 players aged between four and 18 engaged without them being able to come together on the pitch was a tough one, but it was one that the coaches at Crusaders Strikers grasped and that work has found them being shortlisted in the grassroots category of the Belfast Telegraph’s Game Changer awards, in association with Electric Ireland.

“I think all of our coaches and volunteers missed it as much as the kids did because they are used to being out delivering and socialising,” said Danielle McDowell, who combines playing for the Strikers’ first team with being the club’s Head of Female Development.

Coaching via Zoom may have seemed an impossible task before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. It was soon made possible thanks to some imagination and ingenuity.

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Skills challenges, fitness sessions, strength and conditioning training and video analysis were all used to continue the development of the players.

“We have a really good team of coaches and volunteers who were all still working throughout lockdown and were still able to give up their time to do a whole lot for the girls during that period to keep them engaged,” said Danielle.

“Our younger players in particular were really bored and agitated and wanted to get out and about and our teenage players were stuck to their phones and stuck inside on screens far too much, so it was a case of, how can we adapt what we do and what we deliver?

“We got together as a coaching team and Heather Mearns was instrumental in putting together a lot of our online stuff.

“We ran a weekly technical skills challenge with demonstrations and practices of ball manipulation and ball familiarisation that we built up every week, sent out a video and the girls were able to complete it, which was all age specific.

“We had fitness challenges in terms of runs and timings, which again were sent out by video with demonstrations.

“We have age-specific Zoom strength and conditioning sessions with our club strength and condition coach Natalie Thompson which we did weekly.

“There was always three opportunities every week and goalkeeping Zoom sessions as well to keep our young goalkeepers engaged too.”

Missing out on the key social aspects of being involved in sport and the impact that can have on the mental health of youngsters was also a major concern for the Crusaders coaches.

That’s when they moved to ensure there was a fun element as well as a serious one to the online activity, both for players and their wider families.

“We had team quizzes – I think everyone did at least one quiz during lockdown – and Fifa tournaments which were good for team bonding. A bit of team bonding, a bit of competition and a bit of fun,” said Danielle.

“Twice we had mental health checks. We had Elaine Roden on – who used to play for our club and has now been employed by the Irish FA – and she was great in getting on the same wavelength as the girls and giving them tips and things they could do to improve their mental health.

“Things like that were positive for entire families and not just players in helping give them encouragement to get their daily exercise and focus on other things to help them through what was a tough time for everyone.

“Some of the kids really bought into it, but it was difficult to engage everyone. It was more difficult to engage our older players, but with the younger ones it was fantastic and all along we took into account and appreciated that parents were working from home and trying to do homeworks with two or three kids.”

The Strikers are a club that prides itself on being all inclusive and for bringing players all the way through their system, which is why they are particularly proud of Maddy Harvey-Clifford, Rachel McLaren and Emily Wilson currently being in the Northern Ireland women’s full-time training squad in preparation for this summer’s Women’s Euro 2022 tournament, alongside club captain and record caps holder Julie Nelson.

“Our first-team squad has 12-14 players who have come all the way though at Crusaders and another six who have been there for a long time and we have only signed a handful of players over the last few years,” said Danielle.

“That’s massive for us in terms of what we do.

“We have girls who have come through to play first-team and others who didn’t make it to the first-team who are coaching.”

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