Bowled over by local hero

A sport project in East Lothian schools is proving a success, and is expected to reach further afield. Douglas Blane reports.

Graham is tall and fit, has 30 years' experience in the game and is a reigning world champion. Margaret is in Primary 7 and has been playing it for five minutes. But to the surprise of everyone her shots are almost as good as his. "She's a natural," says Graham. "That's the nice thing about this game - anybody can play, from a schoolchild to an 85-year-old grandmother, and it's so simple they can pick it up right away."

The sport is bowls, the place Tranent primary school, and the occasion is the first day of a pilot project that could take the game into every school in the country.

The project is the brainchild of Graham Robertson, national director of bowls coaching, a post he combines with representing Scotland in internationals, and competing for bowling titles around the world. He is current holder of the World Pairs Indoor Championship.

"For the past eight years," he says, "bowling coaches have been giving children at secondary schools a taste of the game, but they've been limited to a few weeks at the end of the school year.

"This project is on a much bigger scale, and for the first time we're going into primary as well as secondary schools. It will run from now until next summer and I'd hope we could see almost every Primary 6 and 7 pupil in East Lothian, and give them all a chance to try the game for themselves."

This is made possible with a bowling mat that fits easily into a gymnasium or assembly hall, several sets of bowls donated by the manufacturers, and a country-wide organisation of bowling coaches under the aegis of the Scottish Bowls Coaching Committee. There's also the support of East Lothian Council and the co-operation of the schools themselves.

"I'm pleased to have Graham and his colleagues here this week," says Julie Cunningham, head teacher at Tranent primary. "Not only because he is something of a local hero, but also because we're keen on sporting and extra-curricular activities. And the coaching creates very little disruption to our classes, because they take the children a small group at a time."

Until the project began, no one could be certain if the enthusiasm of the coaches would be shared by the children. By the afternoon of the first day, there is already little doubt - the pupils at Tranent are having a great time.

Once they realise it is fun, they relax and the inevitable questions begin:

"What happens if you hit the jack?"; "What if your bowl rolls off the mat?"; "Sometimes on TV they use a tape measure - what's that for?"; "Can I have another go please?"

A small minority of the children, like Margaret, draw every shot to within a few inches of the jack. The majority produce strange, wobbly efforts at first but, with advice and encouragement from the coaches, soon begin to get a feel for the game. Almost all of them show a marked improvement by the end of the session.

"There was one girl this morning," says Robertson, "who was a bit shy and wasn't keen on sports. She just wanted to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible. So I talked to her, made a few suggestions and asked her to slow down a bit.

"After half an hour, she was starting to get good. She was smiling and standing straighter, and you could see her thinking, 'I'm quite good at this'. That sort of thing gives me a lot of satisfaction.

"I'm not sure how many of these kids will want to take it further, but already a dozen or so have asked us where they can get a game. So we'll arrange coaching sessions for them at the local indoor stadium, and we'll encourage them to join their local bowling clubs, most of which have junior sections.

"This East Lothian project should be the first of many - Aberdeenshire has already signed up for next year. Fortunately, I don't have to run them all myself because I have eight regional co-ordinators to cover the whole of Scotland, and 1,700 qualified bowling coaches throughout the country. We can handle as many schools as we can get.

"I'm on a three-year contract at the moment, and by the end of that time we should be well established. We'll have the kids on our side, and the local authorities and the schools. We'll have a strong base with thousands of children going through the project. At that stage, my aim will be to get bowls on to the school curriculum. After all, it's the only sport at which Scotland is consistently best in the world."

For further information, contact Graham Robertson, tel: 01875 615953, fax: 01875 613251

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