Summer of Sport

Natalie gets her head in the game at Minds United FC

When Natalie Sims’ mother died of cancer she struggled to cope with her loss. The disease had already claimed her father and her best friend, so the death of her mother in June 2020 was a cruel blow made worse by the stress of the coronavirus lockdowns.

Natalie, 41, said, “I knew my mum was unwell, but during the lockdowns it was difficult to visit her because it was too risky. When she died I was devastated.”

The Londoner, who has suffered poor mental health for much of her adult life, added, “I was dealing with a lot of grief that I hadn’t really dealt with. Grief is usually my biggest trigger. After I’ve lost someone I usually end up in hospital because my depression gets really bad. I just don’t cope at all well. Loss is hard for everyone, but particularly hard for me. It sends me into a deep depression and my suicide ideation gets really bad.”

Natalie began volunteering at a homeless charity to take her mind off her mother’s death. Which is where she met Vicki McGarrigle, another volunteer, who was also working at a National Lottery supported project called Minds United FC.

What’s Minds United FC? Natalie explained, “It’s a mental health football club. It’s targeted at anyone who has mental health issues – everything from anxiety to issues which require hospital treatment. There are also quite a few members with learning disabilities and other special needs and people with substance misuse issues.”

Natalie had played football in her youth, but hadn’t kicked a ball in 10 years when Vicki suggested she try a Minds United FC session. Summoning all her courage, Natalie made the trip to the project’s headquarters on Latimer Road in West London.

How did it go? Natalie said, “I hated it. I left the session thinking I’m never coming back. I’m quite an introvert – I like my own company and I have social anxiety.

“To go from a lockdown where there weren’t many people around, to a situation where there were lots of people, was difficult. My anxiety was through the roof. And I hadn’t played football for a long time – I’d forgotten how to kick a ball.”

That might have been the end of it, but Vicki persisted. Natalie said, “She convinced me to come back. I didn’t want to give up because I didn’t have anything else and I needed something. I didn’t trust myself to not have something. From past experience I know things can plummet and I could end up in hospital.”

It wasn’t long before Natalie found herself enjoying her weekly dose of football. She realised how much she’d missed the game and even though it took her a while to get comfortable with new people, the action on the pitch made it worth it.

When the organisers of Minds United FC found out Natalie had earned a football coaching qualification in 2013, they asked her to start a women’s coaching session and a women’s team.

These days, Natalie is at the club most days, either playing, coaching or refereeing.

Natalie said, “The female sessions can be intense and any football coach will tell you they’re not just a coach. Whether you’re dealing with children, adults or people with special needs or mental health issues, you’re someone they trust once they get to know you. They want to tell you about their life and share their problems. You’ll probably be the first person they’ll come to rather than a friend or a GP. It’s good to have that trust. They respect us and they don’t want to let us down.”

The game itself is great for people with mental health issues. Natalie said, “We say to our girls, ‘when you come onto the pitch you have to forget everything and just have a blow out’. Nine times out of ten they feel better after they leave.”

Thanks to National Lottery players, over £50Million of funding has been raised for women’s football over the past 10 years.

30th June 2022

Photo credit (main image): Monica White/FUF DESIGN

The National Lottery has been changing the lives of winners and supporting good causes across the UK since 1994. In that time, there have been more than 7,200 new millionaires created and by playing The National Lottery you raise over £4 million for Good Causes every dayΔ.

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