‘Deaf Football’ with Fil Kamps

Too frequently we singularly think of disability in its literal form – dis-abled. However, Fil Kamps, has sought to completely defy that assumption and prove that just like everyone else, “working hard, dreaming big and staying humble” pays off. As a decorated retired international footballer and an Olympian, Fil talked to us about his journey with the beautiful game and how he has overcome barriers in his life that he’s faced as a deaf man.

“When I was young I always loved playing sport, football in particular, because with a disability going into primary school, things were very tough,” Fil said.  Fil has been severely  deaf from birth,and ultimately throughout his life, sport has acted as an escape for him. “At school, I continually struggled to understand what was being said, but I found escape in sport. It was the one time in school where didn’t have to worry about what I could hear,” Fil said.

In the classroom was where Fil was reminded of his difference to others. Being educated in a mainstream school meant that Fil’s development was not a priority for all of his teachers, perhaps at the expense of their other students. “Some of my teachers just let me struggle and get on with it, so that communication barrier was hard,” said Fil. “In a classroom setting, the teacher asks a question, someone will answer, it’ll go back to the teacher, and it was like a tennis match for me, having to rely on lip reading, before I’d even thought about what the answer actually was,” Fil remembered.

His classroom experience was one of struggle for a long time, but when it came to sport, he suddenly wasn’t struggling anymore. Fil’s fondest memories of school are all centred around sport. “I would play anything. Even playing bulldog in playground, I used to love going in the middle!” Fil said.

Despite his struggles at school, Fil ended up excelling within education. “With education and anything I do, I’m an extremely competitive person. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Master’s degree or a game of Monopoly, I am so hell-bent in being the best person at it,” Fil said.  Fil went through school as the only deaf student in both his primary and secondary school but managed to achieve 11A*-B at GCSE. At Middlesex University, he graduated top of his cohort and subsequently earned a scholarship to the US to do an MBA, where he once again finished top of cohort.

Fil’s long-term passion had always been football. He started playing football at school, during his ‘release’ of break time and lunch time, the only part of school he enjoyed early on. After school he’d go straight home to play until it got dark, then get in front of TV to watch football. There was never any doubt in his mind that if he practiced hard enough, that could be him.

Fil joined his local football team when he was 8. Until aged 16, he played at decent level, but it was still very much at a local level. However, when Fil was 15 he was selected to represent Kent, then going on to play for Maidstone until he was 18. However, it was at this point that the biggest opportunity came to Fil when he signed for Charlton Athletic.

“It was my first step into the ‘deaf world’. Up until that point, I’d really been only deaf person I knew. But suddenly I’d joined a squad and a staff of people who were all deaf, where that communication barrier was no longer an obstacle,” Fil said. In practical terms, a deaf football game has some unique rules. The referee will carry a flag for the players and a whistle for other officials, some staff and fans. To qualify, players have to have a hearing loss of more than 55 decibels in their better ear. Although all players have to remove their hearing aids/cochlear implants to combat the problem of differing levels of hearing loss.

Fil went on to have a very successful domestic career, winning the English Deaf Football League in his first season with Charlton Athletic. He then transferred to Fulham, who are considered one of the best deaf teams in Europe. In his 3 years at Fulham, his team won the British Deaf Cup, the English Deaf Cup, and got to the Semi-Final of the Champions League twice. It was during his second year at Fulham, that Fil was picked up for the National team training squad.

The World Cup and the Olympics were the two biggest international tournaments that Fil went on to compete in for his country. “The 2016 World Cup in Italy was a phenomenal achievement for me. My first cap was amazing; it really was something I’d worked towards for 16-17 years,” Fil said.

Unbeknownst to me, the Deaf Olympics have been running as an independent tournament aside from the Paralympics under the International Olympic Committee for decades. The reasoning is that the Paralympics itself is already a long event and it doesn’t have the capacity to have an extra category in every single event.

For Fil’s Deaf Olympics experience, he ventured to Samsun in Turkey in 2017. As every great British team does, Great Britain lost on penalties to Italy in the quarterfinals. Fil really got the traditional Olympic experience, staying in an Olympic village and playing in first-class stadiums that attracted a healthy number of spectators.

However, it’s important to point out perhaps this isn’t a consistent experience for deaf athletes. After these Olympics, the governance changed, whereby the English strand of the GB team came under the FA umbrella. This meant that whilst Scotland have now been able to field an 11-aside team, neither Wales or Northern Ireland have.

Their separation from the Paralympics, means that deaf athletes don’t get the same spotlight on them every 4 years, which means fewer fans or TV coverage. “It’s a positive in that as a player at these big events, it’s great to be surrounded from so many people like you around the world. But it’s wholly negative in terms of not being able to access the funding, exposure and purpose-built Olympic facilities,” Fil said.

It’s not just at the international level, that deaf football has its issues. On the domestic stage, a number of professional clubs do have deaf teams, such as Charlton, Fulham and Bristol City. The highest profile one was Man United but in 2014, they shut the team.

“Being at Charlton was great. We trained at the same training ground and we had kit provided. Similarly, being at Fulham was brilliant. When I joined in 2013, they were owned by Mohamed Al-Fayed, who  heavily invested in the deaf team in which his son played. We had full access to the training ground, gym, kit, and we played home matches at Motspur Park. However, after the change in club ownership in 2013, investment has changed and Fulham Deaf Football Club are a self-sufficient club.” Fil said.  

Fil’s final club was with Doncaster and no less than a Champions League Final with Doncaster proved to be his last game ever played. From the years of just trying to play as much football as he could, his cartilage had begun to wear away in his left knee. “I could maybe have pushed on, but I was in consistent pain, so the time was right, and the recommendation from doctors was clear,” said Fil. Aged 24, Fil had to make the decision to fully retire from his beloved game of football.

I asked Fil what he’d done to fill that void of football, which had been such a constant in his life. “Ultimately, I’ve not. That void is so big to try and fill and I’ve not found anything that I’m as passionate about. But I’m certainly very busy,” Fil said.

Fil’s next stage in life was and is ultimately about giving back and trying to have an impact. He has been an Ambassador with the amazing Mintridge Foundation for nearly 6 years, which involves Fil working closely with school age children to foster their development in sport and as people. He’s an ambassador for Kent Disability Football League and has just become the Chairman of Fulham Deaf Football Club.

“I did coach Charlton for a season after I finished, but I found it very difficult to be around football so often, so working at the board room level will be a nice, fresh challenge for me,” Fil said. Fil’s ‘normal job’ was being a motivational speaker, however like so many of us, Covid has thrown up challenges for Fil, and his speaking career has almost completely halted. Therefore, Fil applied for a graduate scheme at Kent County Council, with which he was successful. He is a Transformation Project Graduate, whereby his job is to help deliver the strategic objectives of the council to improve opportunities and outcomes for children and young people. 

I asked Fil if his motivation to undertake these different roles outside of football was to get more people into the game as well as removing the barriers that perhaps he might have faced. “Much of my work isn’t actually about encouraging people to get into football. I think people should pursue things that they’re naturally interested and passionate about it. I’ll help them if they’re passionate about football, but it could be art, science or music,” Fil said.

“It’s about encouraging people to have the courage and believe in themselves that they’re able to pursue any possibility, if they have a disability or not. It’s still a challenge to reach the top in anything, but if you work hard to achieve your goal, then there’s no reason to not achieve that,” Fil said.

Despite Fil’s positive philosophy of input = output, he admits that there are still severe barriers to entry for deaf people. “The main barriers are communication and access. Obviously most coaches and sporting organisations don’t have interpreters, and this can completely block a deaf person’s involvement in a sport,” Fil said.

“Being a deaf person, there are obviously barriers to overcome but these don’t have to be insurmountable,” Fil said. It was at university, that Fil says he really began to redefine his disability as a positive challenge. In the UK, Fil had a sign language interpreter for lecturers. So for Fil, what would be just an hour’s lecture for everyone else, was for him; reading up on presentation beforehand, then watching his interpreter throughout the lecture just to grasp most of what’s covered (which proved difficult in a science-based lecture), then he’d make notes after from what he remembered about the lecture generally and then he would meet with lecturer. 1 hour for everyone else turned into 4-5 hours of work for Fil.

Fil Kamps | Motivational Speaker & Life Coach

Upon Fil describing his very different university experience to my own, I proceeded to laden him with sympathy and admiration for ‘getting on with it’. However, what’s more admirable is Fil’s attitude. “I never feel sorry for myself because there is nothing to be gained from that. There’s actually lots of benefits to being deaf and opened up doors that weren’t available to me otherwise. I don’t see it as a burden, I see it as simply part of my identity. It can be challenging at times, but whose life isn’t,” Fil said.

So many people, like myself, when they find out somebody’s deaf, wrongly say ‘sorry’ or gushingly express their sympathy, but from talking with Fil it’s clear that deaf people are actually so proud of being deaf. There is a huge deaf culture around the world and a pride around having that identity. Being deaf is undeniably a barrier, but barriers are there to be broken down and Fil’s journey is proof that whether that’s with playing football and earning 13 international caps, completing two degrees, or getting your dream job, no barrier is completely insurmountable.

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