Two years ago, Ross MacNeil started a journey in the Paralympic sport of boccia that would have a huge impact on his and his family’s lives.
Ross had struggled his entire life with cerebral palsy and, after leaving school, developed depression and high anxiety due to the lack of a social outlet. He was having frequent outbursts of anger and felt out of place.
Sport helped Ross to turn his life around, to the point where his father now says: “Boccia has made Ross the person he is. It’s really changed his attitude in life."
So how did he discover the benefits of sport?
After being officially diagnosed with depression and anxiety, the medication he was prescribed improved Ross's mental state. However, he was still missing any sort of focus in his life. The answer came in the form of boccia, a target sport played indoors with a soft leather ball which has been a fixture of the Paralympic Games since 1984. When Ross was given a flyer at college for a ‘Boccia Bonanza’ session, his fortunes started to turn around.
Ross's father, Stewart, took him along to the session with high hopes but Ross was left deflated after struggling to throw the ball - and as a result, could not fully participate. Luckily, they were approached by another player who suggested Ross try using a ramp to help him have more consistency with his shots.
After the session, Ross was invited to join the West of Scotland Boccia Club. Hoping not to spend too much money before Ross had decided to commit to the sport, his father watched some YouTube videos and used his initiative to turn some guttering he had bought from B&Q into a temporary ramp for Ross to practise with.
Ross started getting to grips with using the ramp and really enjoyed the social element of being involved in the sport. At this stage, he hadn’t yet considered competing, he just liked meeting new people and being part of a peer group.
After some time, Scottish Disability Sport (SDS) offered Ross a proper boccia ramp, which had a real impact on his progress. It was at this time that Lynne Allison, Regional Manager at SDS, asked Ross about entering some competitions. This caused a lot of worry within the family as they didn’t want the pressures of competing to affect Ross’s anxiety and were concerned about how the pressure would affect him.
Nevertheless, seven months after first trying Boccia, Ross entered his first competition in Bathgate. He was then invited to be on the Scottish Development Squad, which accelerated his development. It was at this point that Ross’ dad Stewart and mum Nikki started to get more involved with the sport.
Stewart became Ross’s ramp assistant and was enthralled in the science of calibrating the ramp. His mum, Nikki, decided to take a referee course so she could also be involved at games. The sport they had known so little about had become a huge part of all of their lives.
Representing his country
Nikki and Stewart could see the benefits playing boccia was having on their son, and invested in a professional ramp and balls. This, along with support from Ross's coaches Steven and Peter McGuire, meant that Ross improved to the point where he was invited by SDS to represent Scotland in Nottingham.
Stewart describes this as the ‘breakthrough moment’ which made Ross sit up and realise that he now had a pathway to follow. Being able to represent his nation is something that the whole family were so proud of.
Over the two years Ross has been involved in boccia, Stewart has seen a huge improvement in his son’s mental health and wellbeing.
“Boccia has made Ross the person he is. It’s really changed his attitude in life.
"From someone who felt they had no place in the world and thought they were better off not being here, he now has a purpose and a reason for going out to train and socialise with friends.
“He no longer feels alone. He now has goals to work towards, people to inspire him and something to focus on. It’s turned him into a much calmer person, and he’s developed so many life skills.”
In the past four months Ross has managed to get a part-time job, which he gained after confidently asking the management of his college work placement to keep him on. This is something Stewart says he never would have been able to do before getting involved in boccia and it highlights how far he’s come.
Stewart is now also coaching boccia and feels that the entire family dynamic has changed thanks to boccia. Although they had always been close, each having a role to play at competitions has made them a tighter unit and had a massive influence on their lives.
From two years ago when "the future looked bleak", in Stewart's words, boccia has provided the grounding the whole family needed.