As the golden memories of Sydney 2000 start to fade, British minds are firmly focused on future sporting success. The unanimous message from victorious athletes at the Olympics was that the pound;60 million lottery funding made the difference between the one medal from Atlanta and the 11 from Sydney. In a timely attempt to raise sporting performance at all levels, the Government recently earmarked pound;750 million from the New Opportunities Fund for schools and communities to build sports facilities.
But before children can step on to a court or pitch and pick up a ball, they need to develop co-ordination, agility and control - the building blocks of sporting success. It's during the early school years that children develop the skills and self-esteem they need to build sporting prowess in later life. But it is also a time when they can be put off for life if they struggle to master the basics.
Roger Stroud, a badminton coach and part-time teacher of English as a foreign language, from Cirencester, Gloucestershire, believes he has found the key to developing these early skills quickly and painlessly. And, thankfully for schools, it doesn't take hours of practice or cost lots of money. In fact it is simplicity itself - a hand-made paper ball weighing less than eight grams.
The multi-coloured balls, made of a waxy, tissue-like paper, have a hole surrounded by a thin metal disk at one end. Blow into the hole and the ball will stay inflated for long periods if handled gently. Unlike balloons, which have an uneven and unpredictable bounce, or shuttlecocks, sponge balls or tennis balls, which move too quickly, the paper balls are easy to manipulate because they bounce slowly, evenly and predictably.
Mr Stroud was given one of the balls - which are used as a novelty decoration item in the Far East - as a present by one of his students. It has been working wonders in his badminton classes ever since. "It was the answer to my prayers - my eureka moment," he says. "I had been working with players with various disabilities for more than two years and I was looking for something that was easier to control than a balloon."
Mr Stroud was given a few more balls by his departing student and has sincebeen using them in all his badminton classes and trying them out in primary schools. "The greatest benefit is that they give the kids time to work out the best way of doing particular tasks," he says. "Time they simply wouldn't have with any other missile."
As he demonstrates with Year 6 and 7 pupils from Kemble county primary school near Cirencester, the speed with which the children develop control of the ball is plain to see. Those who already have good hand-eye co-ordination quickly move on to heading the ball and working in pairs to tap it to and fro. The children who are chasing the ball around at the start of the hour-long session quickly develop more sophisticated control techniques. Kemble's headteacher, Barry Parsons, is impressed. "You can see the children developing from tentatively patting the balls to moving them around confidently," he says.
The physical education curriculum demands that key stage 1 pupils "should be taught to explore basic skills and actions" and to "remember and repeat simple skills and actions with increasing control and co-ordination". These paper balls certainly fulfil those criteria in a short space of time.
Once children have learned to control the ball, they can move on to apply these skills to a specific sport. As well as giving them a head start in racquet sports, the balls will, Mr Stroud believes, benefit students wanting to play other sports including football, rugby, netball and even volleyball. "They could make a real difference to co-ordination and skills levels across the board. And because of their extreme user-friendliness, they could draw children into sport and activities that might otherwise not have occurred to them."
Mr Stroud contacted educational suppliers and sport associations to see if anything similar was on the market. Having drawn a blank, he decided to fill the gap in the market by setting up SportsPoints plus to supply them. "All the comments I've had from students, parents and professionals have been favourable and I don't believe the balls have been used for this purpose before. It is a true innovation," he says.
The balls cost pound;15 for a pack of 35, pound;40 for 100, pound;390 for 1,000 or pound;30 for three packs of 20. All orders come with an information leaflet. Available from SportsPoints plus, 79 Victoria Road, Cirencester, Gloucestershire GL7 1ES. Telfax: 01285 659133