An African Adventure

My name is Russ Edwards and I am 17 years old. I have Phenylketonuria (PKU) and I’m on 7½ exchanges a day. I study Sport and Exercise Science, level 3 at Bridgwater College and I am currently half way through my second and last year of the course. I take part in hobbies such as cricket and rugby at weekends to keep myself fit and healthy alongside going to the gym when I can. I have played rugby since I was 5 years old and cricket since I was 9 and I am also a qualified cricket umpire.  

In the future I would like to be a professional manager in football and I intend to achieve this by passing my college course and gaining experience in coaching. I have a possible job opportunity lined up with a Sports Coaching company who coach children in school PE lessons, breakfast, after-school and holidays clubs. This will help me to gain the qualities needed to work with a group of people, such as time management, knowledge of the sport, motivation techniques and will enable me to make use of the coaching techniques I have developed through college. I also intend to add to my qualifications through attending coaching courses to improve and develop my skills giving me the best chance of reaching my ambition.

Two modules I have been studying at College are Nutrition and Biomechanics in Sport. Nutrition has been especially interesting for me because of my PKU link to diet and food and due to the importance of protein in sport as it is needed for muscle building and repair. The Biomechanics module is my favourite one because it includes tactics and statistics and links these with managing and coaching to improve performance. I have always been good at maths and logic questions so I have really enjoyed using this in the analysis side of sport.  

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For my college course we are going to Port Elizabeth in South Africa for two weeks in March 2013 to coach children in the townships for 15 days. I think that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and it will be lots of fun as well as helping to benefit the development of my skills as a coach. From this I will hope to gather the skills to take into my job and beyond. The thing I am most looking forward to is seeing how I will cope under circumstances that I will not be used to and with limited time to adapt to these circumstances. We won’t get much down time but we do have a visit to a safari park planned – this is something that I have always wanted to get the chance to do. However I’m not looking forward to the heat because it will be very hard to stay focused and concentrate throughout the day. I also think that the levels of poverty will be difficult to witness. 

I have heard that South Africa is a stunning place to visit but that it can also be very dangerous. The college have put on extra lessons for those of us that are going so that we can learn about the culture, politics and the apartheid system, the health issues and how to keep safe. The college have warned us that many of the children we will coach will be playing sport in bare feet and will often have to make sporting equipment such as balls and goals out of clothes and sticks – apparently they can improvise very creatively! We will be taking with us a lot of equipment and games which we will leave behind for them after our visit. One of the more challenging aspects will be overcoming the language barrier. I will have to find ways of instructing and communicating with the children using hand and face symbols, gestures and any other imaginative methods I can think of so that we can understand each other. The visit will end in a township tournament with all of the schools competing against each other. I have heard from previous trips that this can become quite competitive (especially amongst us coaches as we each want out teams to win the tournament).

I have travelled a lot with my family. I have been to Iceland, Tunisia, Finland, Spain, Greece, Portugal, but this trip to South Africa will be more difficult as I will have to manage my diet without any support as I will be the only one there who knows about PKU. I’m going to take a lot of my own food out with me to ensure that I eat enough to stay focused and have energy to do the activities that I will be required to do. My amino acid drink supplements will be packed on the plane with the sports equipment and in the compound where we are staying we will have our own cook who bakes bread every day. I will take some flour and yeast packets and the college staff are going to contact her before we go so that she knows she will have some “different” bread to make. I will take a few extra packs of flour in case the first attempts don’t work out. I will also take some dried pasta biscuits, crackers and sausage/burger mix to have with other free food such as vegetables, salad and fruit.

It may be a bit difficult at times but with some planning I will have enough options to ensure that I can keep healthy and fit enough for the challenge – who knows, my township team may even win the tournament!

How I coped
The flight into South Africa was 11 hours long. We flew from Gatwick to Johannesburg and then from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth on a 2 hour flight. The equipment that we took included netballs, bibs, footballs and cones and we ended up leaving this equipment over there so that it could be used by the schools that we visited. The college agreed to transport my PKU cooler parcels with this equipment which was helpful because we each had an 18kg limit for our luggage. We also took some of our own football shirts and kit to give them to the kids that we coached. The children there have so little that it was really nice for us to be able to leave them with kit and equipment.
It was very different in South Africa to here the heat was hard to get used to and the scenery is very different. You can see for miles with no obstructions and there was hardly a cloud in the sky all the time we were there.

What I did

We went to six different schools in townships that were near to where we were staying in Port Elizabeth. We were split into different groups each time we went to a school and we went to each school twice. Depending on the group, we coached football or netball to a group of primary school children, normally with about 16 in each group. This meant that I had the opportunity to coach football which is good because this is what I want to go into in later life and also allowed me to have the opportunity to coach a sport that I have never coached before. Each group had different challenges like the language barrier and ability levels allowing me to adapt and work closely with my team so that the session went well each time.

We also did some fun activities like bowling, days out on safari tours in which we were able to see lots of different animals including lions, tigers, elephants, and warthogs. I really enjoyed this because I have always wanted to see lions up close in their natural environment and it was just a really nice experience. We also went dune boarding and saw some native African dance shows.

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I managed my diet by taking some packs of flour for bread and snack pots that I was able to eat when I was hungry. I needed enough food so that I got sufficient energy to get me through the long, hot days. Also, I took some energy drinks that were given to me by the hospital to keep me focused and hydrated which really helped in keeping me concentrated all day. As well as this I also took a lot of snacks like crisps and biscuits which were free and allowed me to not get hungry throughout the day and made sure that I didn’t go over my exchange allowance. We ate out some nights which meant that I sometimes took some already prepared bread to have with the food in restaurants.

In conclusion

I am very glad I went on this trip and would encourage anyone else, with PKU or not to do the same because it was very informing to see how people live and the conditions in South Africa. Also it was very helpful to my career and allowed me to get a good idea of what it’s like to coach children with a language barrier and to coach sports that I may not have done before. Although it was really good in South Africa I was happy to get home because of the heat and I just missed being at home and seeing my family and friends. One of the shocks to us when returning home in Gatwick early on a Sunday morning in April, wearing T shirts, shorts, and flip flops to find that it had been and was snowing. We were freezing!

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