If you weren't born to be a Beckham or destined to be a Dallaglio, school sports can be an intimidating business. But a new computer-based project known as Sportsearch could soon change all that by enabling secondary school pupils to pinpoint what they're likely to enjoy and be good at - even if they don't know a shinpad from a shuttlecock.
The initiative is the brainchild of Sport England, the country's leading sports development agency and a distributor of lottery funds to sport. David Moffet, its chief executive, says: "Sportsearch is an innovative programme that will motivate young people in the UK to become active - and hopefully lead them to a love sport and become healthy adults."
The project encourages young people to be active by undertaking a series of straightforward physical tests - throwing, jumping, stretching and so on. Then, after some basic calculation, the results are fed into a web-linked computer program. Children have their own usernames and PIN numbers so that their details remain secure.
The outcome of the tests is a list of sports that a given student is likely to be well suited to - but the results will also indicate clubs near to home or school at which students can pursue their new sporting interests.
The project has an inclusive ethos and is not geared to talent-spotting, says Mark Ormerod, Sportsearch's manager, although chance discoveries would be directed to the appropriate channels. "This is a programme for every young person no matter how fit or how skilled," he says.
The aim is to provide a ranked list of sports that suit pupils' interests and strengths. After that, the onus on pursuing the sport will be with students, so guidance from teachers and parents will be an important factor in nurturing new interests and skills.
"The programme will generate a letter aimed at parents so that they can supervise the next stage - making contact with a local sports club," says Ormerod.
To encourage the wider pursuit of sport, one of the main selling points of the initiative will be its clubs database, which holds the relevant information about every club and association affiliated to the national governing bodies of all the major sports - and many minor ones, too. This is a huge task as there are more than 150,000 sports clubs around the country.
The idea for such a sports-matching project was developed along similar lines in Australia some 10 years ago, when Ormerod was first attracted to the idea. But the antipodean version had some important differences.
"The Australian programme was aimed at identifying a tiny elite of future sports stars who might become Olympians one day," recalls Ormerod. "I thought the principle behind the [Australian] programme was very promising, but I didn't want a scheme that told kids: 'You're not good enough.' " Ormerod has worked on the Sportsearch project since 1998 and has consulted closely with sports teachers across the country. The programme is already up and running in a few pilot areas such as Knowsley in Merseyside, Southampton and the London borough of Lambeth and should be ready for a national launch in the spring.
In order for Sportsearch to be "inclusive and accessible", sport and PE staff must play a key counselling role when it comes to choosing the "right sport" for each child, says Ormerod.
"A youngster may be 6ft 8in and look every inch a basketball player but if his real aptitude and potential passion is in table tennis, then so be it," he says.
Ormerod admits that many good teachers have been providing support and motivation for young people to take up sport for years, but insists that having access to such an efficient and reliable profiling system and Sportsearch's formidable database can only be good for the future of sport in schools.
So what do teachers on the pilot programme think? "It's really very promising," says Edwina Fearson, head of PE at the Atherley school in Southampton. "It's amazing that nobody has thought of this idea before - the girls enjoyed inputting the data about themselves and doing the tests, which are not very difficult.
"My only concern is with the amount of time it takes on the computer - it's at least a double lesson and we don't always have access to the ICT suite."
She adds that the technological dimension could prove difficult in schools which have not already made creative cross-curricular links between PE and ICT.
At another pilot school in Knowsley, the response has been very positive indeed. Alwyn Anderson, head of PE at Alt Bridge secondary support centre, says: "As a special school, something like Sportsearch is a real confidence-builder for our children. They love taking part in the tests and getting a wider view of what sport can offer them.
"They feel good about doing the same programme as the local comprehensives - it's really helping to raise their self-esteem."
She a lso has high hopes that the programme will encourage pupils with real talent to get involved in more after-school activities.
"We're a small school of 175 and we can't offer more than two activities each week," she says.
At present, there is no charge to schools for Sportsreach, but there may be a small annual licence fee to pay once it starts nationwide. There are some costs attached to the 11 tests but these are minimal and can be conducted with basic resources such as chalk, tapemeasures and medicine balls.
Overall, Sport England is pleased with the progress of the pilot studies, says David Moffet.
"Projects like Sportsearch are at the forefront of IT development," he says. "Young people have been consulted throughout, so Ithink it will appeal - it incorporates what they want and encourages them be more active and to have fun."
Sportsearch will be launching a newly designed website at the Education Show. Schools will be able to register their interest in the scheme at www.sportsearch.org.uk
Stand C512 (Sport England)