Safer way to get into tennis

As the Andy Murray phenomenon sweeps through schools after his achievements last year on the international tennis circuit, teachers are beginning to realise how hazardous racket sports can be.

Children as young as 4 are wanting to swing a racket, but school gyms are not the most accommodating places. Give 30 primary children a racket and ball or shuttlecock and ask them to practise in a confined area and you are likely to get mayhem.

The English company Plusballs, set up by a part-time teacher, believes it has the answer and the product to introduce them to tennis or badminton.

A plusball is a lightweight, slow moving ball imported from the Far East.

It is designed so that young children can control it as easily as a balloon but it moves like a normal ball. The company, started by Roger Stroud in Cirencester five years ago, now regularly imports thousands of them and has already sold 110,000 to schools throughout Britain.

Mr Stroud argues that traditional rubber balls, sponge balls, airflow balls and shuttlecocks are virtually uncontrollable for young children learning racket sports as a group.

"Because children can't control balls, they are running all over the hall after them, creating chaotic, even dangerous, situations," he says. "What's more, they get frustrated and despondent, so their earliest experience of racket games is a negative one.

"If a teacher has got this far, he or she will also get frustrated and take racket sports off the curriculum as unworkable."

A large class using plusballs can be handled easily, Mr Stroud says.

Children can get rallies going without direct teacher involvement and gain spatial awareness, improved co-ordination skills and increased confidence levels. They can then move on to faster, heavier and bigger balls.

"It's all about building up the confidence of a child," he explains.

Mr Stroud first demonstrated the balls to the Lawn Tennis Association in England and has had considerable interest in Scotland. Last term he took an order from Kingussie High in Highland.

"All we are teaching is the first rung of the ladder and getting children involved in sport. After 12 or 13 sessions, they can move on to the next level."

Mr Stroud comes from a racket sports background and has tended to concentrate on selling plusballs for initial tennis and badminton coaching, but he has had difficulty persuading the sports governing bodies to take them on board formally, although Scottish Badminton has been supportive.

However, he believes other sports can benefit from them as well and he has had some interest from the Scottish Football Association recently.

Drew Kelly, the development officer for the Borders, says: "The balls proved a great success in our SFA pre-school programme and I'm currently investigating the product being included as part of the equipment used in a regional SFA pilot programme being planned for primary children."

Mr Stroud says his equipment is relatively cheap at pound;59.50 for 100 plusballs. The company also offers mini rackets (50cm) and is developing a DVD as a teaching aid.

"Children don't need expensive equipment when they are just starting out, as long as the rackets are light and they are comfortable using them," he says.

Jed Renilson, the disability sports development officer for Scottish Borders Council, has used plusballs in his classes and been encouraged by the response.

"I have found them a really good help as they slow things down so much," he says.

"I work with people in wheelchairs and I find the plusballs are ideal. They give individuals a sense of achieving something.

"I have even given them to the football development officers here and they have started to use them."

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