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No easy stretch for the highest returns

Badminton Scotland is demanding Olympian dedication from its new elite squad of teenagers aiming to win medals, writes Roddy Mackenzie

An estimated 550,000 people play badminton in Scotland and most are recreational players. But if you have ambitions to do well, forget any notion that the game is undemanding. Badminton Scotland, the game's governing body, is embarking on an intense programme to produce world-class competitors.

A new junior Lottery group programme will place exceptional demands on the best young players in the country. It will be a case of survival of the fittest as teenagers will be given strength and conditioning programmes as much as technique coaching and they will be stringently tested as the training progresses.

Some parents have already indicated that it will be too big a demand to place on children and have withdrawn theirs. However, Badminton Scotland makes no apologies and simply says that sacrifices have to be made if success is to come.

The editorial of the September issue of Scottish Badminton, the governing body's official magazine, warns: "The new programme offers a wonderful opportunity for those whose sole aim in life is to become as good a badminton player as possible. It will be a millstone around the neck of any athlete who enters it on any other terms."

Cuts in National Lottery funding from SportScotland have meant that the former junior squad of 64 boys and girls has been cut to just 16 players.

The development squad used to meet once a week; the selected athletes in the new squad, ranging from under-13s to under-19s, will have to devote considerably more hours to the sport. The youngest will be expected to put in eight hours training a week, including a three-hour squad session on Sundays, and the oldest will be required to commit to 14 hours a week.

In addition, they will have to attend tournaments at home and abroad - for which there will be funding - and adhere to strict diets and meet fitness targets.

"There have been a few who have felt they cannot give such a commitment but not very many," says junior Lottery squad co-ordinator Hilary Atkinson. "We totally respect that decision as we know it is difficult when they have school as well.

"It is a huge commitment for players and their parents but it is what needs to be done if we are to win medals in future. It reflects what's going on in other countries, especially in Asia.

"We are selecting 16 players initially. It can be any mix of girls and boys - not necessarily eight of each - with the upper age limit determined by eligibility to compete in the European Junior Championships in two years.

"The squad can change over the period of time and the first review will take place after six months."

Miss Atkinson says some advice on training has been taken from Yuan Wemyss, Scotland's number one woman player, who was reared in the tough Chinese regime before she moved here and switched her international allegiance.

From the age of 11 she had to run 400m in under 90 seconds, do 100 skips in a minute and other routines, including a number of sit-ups in a specified time.

The demands were raised when she turned 14 and had two full days of tests, which measured her running times over 50m, 100m, 400m, 800m and 3,000m. To qualify for her senior national squad, the requirements were 1,500 skips in under 21 minutes, 5 x 300m runs in a specified time as well as a 3,000m time trial.

Dan Travers, badminton coach at the Scottish Institute of Sport, who is conducting assessments of candidates for the new junior squad, warned of the sacrifices that need to be made by players and parents. He acknowledges that some players will be upset at missing out on the initial selection but challenges those omitted to prove him wrong in the forthcoming months.

As the World Masters doubles champion and a former Commonwealth doubles champion, Mr Travers knows what is required to play at the top level. And he knows that SportScotland is no longer willing to provide funds simply to support a Scotland team in any given sport.

"Funding sport at the elite end is dependent on return and the return required today for the investment to be regarded as worthwhile is medals," he says.

Badminton Scotland plans to recruit a full-time national high-performance junior coach to oversee the programme.

All of this provides spice for the Scottish Junior Badminton Championships for under-15s and under-19s at Edinburgh's Meadowbank Stadium next weekend, on October 18-19. Those left out of the programme will be keen to make their point.

Initially, the junior Lottery group will be funded for a year by SportScotland. If Badminton Scotland shows the progress expected, it is likely to be extended.

"We certainly hope that will be the case and our new national high-performance junior coach will have an initial contract of two or three years," says Badminton Scotland's chief executive, Anne Smillie.

"This is a new approach for us, to go from a squad of 64 to a few hand-picked athletes, and we knew there would be some criticism. We will still have a national development squad to provide the foundations but it will not be funded by SportScotland."

She is keen to emphasise that the sport will still cast the net wide to get as many people playing as possible.

An estimated 2,000 schoolchildren have been invited to Glasgow's Kelvin Hall next month for an annual festival to coincide with the International Badminton Championships on November 20-23, which attracts full-time players from throughout the world. It is through watching the elite in action that children will aspire to be the best.

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