Rediscovering sporting memories through reminiscence

The Olympics and Paralympics underline the power of sporting moments to stamp themselves on the memory. Luke Bishop finds out how one man's past as a footballer resurfaced through reminiscence.

When Bill Corbett first encountered a Football Memories session at an Alzheimer Scotland day centre near Falkirk he was somewhat reluctant to get involved, preferring to read his newspaper instead.

Michael White with Bill Corbett

The sessions were being run by Michael White, one of the founding directors of the Sporting Memories Network, who was using football photographs and programmes from the 1940s and 50s to stimulate memory in people with dementia like Bill who went to the centre.

However, Bill soon joined in and started talking about his career as a footballer. It turned out that he had played professionally for both English and Scottish clubs as well as for Scotland's national team.

Michael was intrigued at how this initially quiet man was able to open up and talk about football and his career through the use of simple materials - including a programme from October 1942 in which a young Bill played against England at Wembley.

Out of his shell

Kevin McKay, one of the Dementia Advisers at the day centre, noticed the impact. He says that no one had known about Bill's football career until the Football Memories groups had started.

He adds,

'The day he went to Hampden Park was so moving. To see his face when they brought out the cup his team had won back in 1938 moved us. We were all shedding a tear.

'To see that Wembley match programme and the match report of the game was quite amazing. We'll never forget his face as we read out the article from the Daily Express.'

Unlocking memories

Although Bill sadly died last year, for Michael White the impact that the reminiscence sessions had on him was proof that the concept worked. Starting with a simple picture. Bill could go on to recall football matches from decades ago with intense clarity.

Michael says,

'Bill was the proof I needed that the use of sporting images to trigger memories was powerful stuff. It was the pictures that unlocked the memories and I only had to show Bill a picture of Stanley Matthews or Tommy Lawton and we were off.

'It was simply amazing to watch and Bill made me smile when a university researcher interviewed him as part of an initial evaluation. The questions were all answered politely and in a positive manner. Eventually, Bill reached into his pocket and pulled out his handkerchief.

'He said "See this. This hankie is soaking wet, soaking wet with tears, tears of joy." It was hard not to shed a tear at the beauty of this summary from an old man who had found moments of peace, happiness and enjoyment from sharing great memories of his remarkable football career.'

Beyond football

Last year Michael went on to co-found the Sporting Memories Network with fellow directors Chris Wilkins and Tony Jameson Allen. The network is partnered with Alzheimer Scotland and carries out Football Memories sessions across Scotland with people who have dementia. It works with the Scottish Football Museum which supplies photographs and other archive material for the groups. The network has also produced a sporting reminiscence guide, which aims to help care homes and other organisations to start their own sessions.

For Tony, one of the network's co-founders, what is vitally important is that these sessions are upbeat and tailored to the people involved.

He says,

'We make sure we have images that are relevant to people. It would be no good taking in images of the Liverpool team if they are all Everton fans, so we make sure we do research and prepare in advance before each session.'

The network is also starting to expand beyond football, running sessions on other sports including golf, tennis, motorsports, and track and field on behalf of Alzheimer Scotland. Their work is also being backed by well-known names from many of these sports such as tennis commentator John Inverdale and Formula One racing driver David Coulthard.

To find out more visit Sporting Memories Network website which includes specialist areas for different sports where people can look at pictures and stir their memories as well as add photographs and memories of their own.