"10 seconds left! Can we get ONE MORE REP IN … ONE MORE REP! 10 tic toc. Nice and fast! Good, good, good! Bend those knees."
That was Coach Grace Bowman at a recent practice at XL Soccer World off of Lee Road in Orlando, as more than a dozen energetic soccer players of various ages and abilities, work on their agility, skill moves, and defending.
- Coach Grace Bowman is this week's Everyday Hero
- She teaches, coaches soccer to autistic children
- Want to nominate an Everyday Hero? Email us
It's clear to see from afar how Bowman motivates her players. Her strong voice commands respect. But it's how she earns their respect that takes this story to a whole new level.
In her British accent, eyes laser focused on her young athletes gathered with her in a huddle, with arms in with hands piled up, one on top of each other, she speaks in a high voice.
"EXCELLENT on 3, 1-2-3 — EXCELLENT! Job well done, go grab a drink."
As the crowd disperses, she explained the story behind the team name, XL.lent soccer — Excelling Exceptional Needs Through Soccer."
While others would not give these kids a chance. Bowman did. You see, these young athletes have varying degrees of autism.
"They have high functioning autism," she said. "Kids that mainly struggle with social interaction or developing friendships which translates into life in general."
These exceptional kids move, jump, and excel. For one hour each week they are together as one, part of a team. They feel and truly move and function like athletes in a world that doesn’t always feel welcoming to children who need a little extra TLC.
Bowman, a former Division 1 soccer star, came from her native England to the U.S. on a college scholarship to play at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, almost nine years ago. Orlando is now home.
WHY CREATE A SOCCER TEAM FOR AUTISTIC PLAYERS
One day after asking one of her players in an adult league at XL Soccer World why their child, who often sat on the sidelines, wasn't in the kids league, the mom whispered, "He has autism," Bowman said, "Well let's start a league!" And she did.
That was three years ago when she started XL.lent soccer with eight kids. Fast forward, now she has a couple dozen players and there is a waiting list.
Bowman's recipe for success? Keeping kids focused and team work. Plus, having visual reinforcement is also a big deal with Bowman. A the beginning of each game, the soccer players gather on the field, eyes set on the coach, and the kids take turns reading the rules out load from a poster board. So the kids are not only told what to do, they can see what they will do. Reinforcing visual cues for people with autism is key.
HELPERS STEP IN TO ASSIST
Bowman shies away from taking the credit for the team's success. She wants the world to know she is not going at this alone. With her educational background — Bowman holds a double degree in sociology and social work in social services — she knows it's all about connection people with resources.
Enter the UCF CARD program — Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. It's an outreach program that provides services in area to families with children with autism. At every practice, one to three, or even four UCF CARD student volunteers are on the field to assist in reinforcing what Coach Grace has prepared for the drill or task at hand that day. And the help keeps pouring in with help for the kids.
AN UNEXPECTED GUARDIAN ANGEL
Many families with kids with autism deal with the financial burden of costly therapies, tools, and specialized schools or classes for their children, so adding the cost of a being in a soccer team can add up. Worry no more. A local non-profit, RIP ITT, named after 22-year-old FSU student Ian Trent Taylor who died unexpectedly, donated $20,000 to pay for kids enrolling in the XL.lent soccer.
"It's new to us, and we are new to them, so it's fun, kinda figuring out things all around," says Tanner Taylor, whose late brother the charity is named after. The Taylor family had no connection to autism until now and they are delighted to help keeps his brother's memory alive through soccer, which the late Ian Trent Taylor loved.
AT THE END OF THE DAY
Bowman is so thankful for the players, their families, UCF CARD, the RIP ITT Foundation helping her in guiding and mentoring the kids. As coach is wrapping up our interview the kids come and steal a hug here and there.
Bowman, tough on the field mixed in with lots of unconditional love. She is this week's Everyday Hero.