As the Head of Reading Rockets’ community programmes, Steph Johnson knows her job is about more than just basketball.
Boasting one of the most varied community programmes in the country, Reading Rockets pride themselves on using basketball to bring people together.
Spearheaded by coach Johnson, at its peak the Rockets’ programme reached more than 400 people a week around Berkshire - bringing basketball to all ages, in schools, colleges and at their arena.
In recent years their Special Educational Needs (SEN) programme has become a focal point of the club’s community work, making The Rockets Special Olympics basketball leaders in the region.
“We started looking into creating the SEN programme about three years ago, after realising we weren’t inclusive enough,” explained Steph.
“There were kids coming to our sessions and struggling due to physical and intellectual disabilities and we knew it was our responsibility to address that and provide for them.
“So, we started going into special needs schools at first and it’s just grown and grown from there.
“We now work in most of the Reading SEN schools running PE sessions, lunchtime sessions and an after-school satellite programme too.”
With the SEN programme growing, Steph took the time to study SEN teaching to ensure she could deliver the best sessions for any ability level.
“It kind of reignited my coaching journey when I got into that,” she added.
“I realised it’s so little to do with what I know about basketball in these sessions. It’s very much about how do I take each individual kid and make sure they thrive and make sure they feel like they’ve succeeded.
“That’s where the real coaching is. It’s about your people skills, being adaptive, looking at the individual in front of you and working with their needs.
“Someone might have had a really bad day and their emotions will be all over the place. You might just need to sit on the floor, roll a ball to each other and have a chat because they just need some down time.”
One of the most important parts of Steph’s role is identifying what ‘success’ means to each individual.
And most of the time success in the SEN programme means much more than scoring a basket.
“The smallest things to us can be the biggest victories to those kids,” said Steph.
“Walking into a sports hall that they’ve never been to with big lights on and noise for some of them is an absolute win.
“For others it might be the first time they’ve ever come out and played sport. It might be the first time they’ve spoken to someone else not in their school.
“We had one child who, because of health conditions, needed quite a big heart operation. But through playing sport he dropped a lot of weight and because of that the operation has been deferred and he still hasn’t had to have it.
“Now that’s not all down to us as he’s put in a lot of hard work but it shows it’s not all about getting good at basketball.”
Like all sports clubs, the Reading Rockets were severely impacted by COVID-19, as it brought all of their community programmes to a halt for months.
“It’s been really tough,” added Steph. “We’re in a position where things can start coming back now but there are still a lot of challenges.
“Many people are still anxious and don’t feel safe enough to come back to sport yet. That’s absolutely understandable.
“We’re struggling getting back into schools. Lots of them aren’t even looking at external sports until January which is tough for us because it’s what we do. We were doing more than 100 hours a week pre-lockdown.
“So, we’re having to be imaginative and we’re trying to get our own programmes up off the ground because we’ve got a bit more control over that.”
These restrictions have left a huge dent in the funding available to Steph for community programmes.
That’s why she thinks signing her club up to GiveToLocal’s service has the potential to have a monumental impact on the future of what her and the club can do in the community.
“It would be huge for us,” she added. “We have people that support us in their own small way but you never know if they’re going to keep that up year on year.
“We’re always thankful for whatever we get but straight away you’re worrying what if that doesn’t come again and you end up being quite hand to mouth with it.
“Knowing that the income through GiveToLocal’s service would be there every month would just give us breathing space.
“We don’t have anyone that does fundraising and I’m sure lots of clubs don’t so having that service to rely on would let me use all of my time to write up new programmes and coach kids. And get back to doing what I love basically.”