The Physios: Where Theory Meets Heartfelt Practice

The physiotherapy room at the Homeless World Cup site in Mexico City is a space of constant activity. Both current and future physiotherapist professionals from the University College Copenhagen in Denmark and Oslo Metropolitan University in Norway have been meeting, treating and building friendships with hundreds of players from around the world.

Each year four students and one teacher from each university devote a week to the tournament. Jannick Marschall heads the physiotherapy programme at the University in Denmark. His Homeless World Cup journey started here in Mexico City back in 2012 for the 9th edition of the tournament.

Marschall explains how this tournament is an important experience for the physiotherapy curriculum at both universities, providing an opportunity for students to engage with a large variety of people—gaining practical experience but also developing students’ mentality in response to different patients and situations.

Marschall also explains how the tournament is such a great experience for him and his professional practice: “Being here is such a great use of my profession—not only teaching the students, but also using my profession to give something back to the world community.”

Catching up with physiotherapy students Kjell-Egil Bogfjellmo Haug, Sunniva Leilani Tvedten, both from Norway, and Anna Kaalund from Denmark has been an eye opener of the goings-on of the physiotherapy room across the past six days of the tournament.

With so many matches in such a short period of time, the students say they have come across multiple cases of ankle, knee and wrist injuries, but mostly just a lot of tight muscles.

“So we have been doing a lot, a lot of massages. Most people just need the reassurance that their pain isn’t serious and that they can continue to play their next game. So a lot of what we have been doing is calming the players down, putting our physiotherapist brains to one side, and just showing human-to-human support as often the players just need to be heard. This has been interesting because it isn’t something that you learn at University,” says Kjell-Egil.

What has been quite interesting for all three students is how they have become almost personal physiotherapists for particular players, with players coming back and wanting the same physiotherapist time and time again.

“There are a lot of people who haven’t ever been to a doctor or physiotherapist before. We are the first person to hear the pain, we are the first person to really hear it, hear their story and what they are dealing with, and that means a lot to them,” says Sunniva.

The effect has been that the team’s hard work and skills have been greatly thanked: “A player from Korea came in with pain on one of his fingers, he then consequently fainted. After he woke up we just spent some time relaxing him. He came back to thank us. Lining us all up, he bent down on one knee and saluted us in the traditional Korean way—basically showing us the biggest amount of respect and gratitude.”

Experiences like this one “reminds me that I really want to do this—not only work with sports people or people who have money to come to me, but work with people who don’t have all that much,” says Anna, who also volunteers for the street soccer team in Copenhagen.

“For us it is our first experience of this kind of thing. It has really opened up our minds that we sometimes need to put aside the theory and practical side of things and lay more emphasis on the human-to-human interaction rather than the strict physiotherapist role.

“Something that is important to know: a lot of the injuries, if they had been at home we would have said no they shouldn’t play. But because they have taken this long journey and it is the world cup and they are here in Mexico, we are trying to fix their pains as best as we can. Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to say to a player they can’t play would be too cruel,” says Kjell-Egil.

On a final note Sunniva, with the agreement of her fellow students, explains how much of an inspiring week this has been for them: “The spirit here, connecting with different countries, so many different cultures, it being not too competitive, has been so very beautiful.”

Words: Deborah May
Images: Daniel Lipinski