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Team building from grassroots

As Scottish volleyball regains its international form, a North Lanarkshire project is showing the way to ensure a brighter future, reports Roddy Mackenzie

If the Scottish Volleyball Association is taking the high road to raise the profile of the game, there is no neglect of it at grass roots. Quite the opposite.

Scotland's return to the men's European championships this year after a long absence will give a measure of where the sport stands. The Scotland team that hosted the Four Nations tournament in Glasgow in December was the youngest for some time and the appointment last year of a national high performance coach in Tommy Dowens has already had a significant impact. However, the SVA hopes that by forging closer links with schools, its future will be even brighter.

For the first time, a group of players are training full-time and there are more defined routes for young players to reach the top level. In the not-too-distant past the emergence of young players was largely up to chance, but now there is painstaking attention to ensuring that the most promising do not escape the net.

Strong links exist between the schools game and the international set-up. Indeed, two of the Scots in the Four Nations tournament, Stewart McGrenary and Ally Galloway, coach primary children in North Lanarkshire.

There the council has appointed a volleyball development officer, Nicola James. Forty primary schools are linked to five sports centres which offer further player development. With 20 players regularly attending each centre, that means 100 are working with SVA qualified coaches. In time, these players can take part in the new beginners' level junior national league, go on to the more advanced junior league and then progress up to the senior national league.

All of the major national league teams have an input into the Scotland national team structure and so young players should not be overlooked.

While the SVA is keen to catch potential players at primary school age, the North Lanarkshire sports project is not confined to volleyball and recognises the dangers of specialising at too early an age.

John French, the council's schools sports development manager, says: "If you target kids to a particular sport too early then there is a danger you can turn them off it. I think it's better to generalise and let a child play what he or she wants, whether it is volleyball, football or basketball.

"At the Sport 2001 conference last November there was a module on talent identification where it was argued that apart from gymnastics, swimming and table tennis, kids should be at least 12 or 13 before they were identified for a specific sport."

There have been calls for every primary school to have its own full-time physical education specialist but Mr French is one of those who believe that is unlikely to happen. However, by offering schools the chance to buy into specialist coaching, demand can still be met.

Brannock High School in North Lanarkshire and Carluke High School in South Lanarkshire have previously boasted Scottish national league teams. Although that is not the case now, the number of development groups in the area means it is only a matter of time before another senior national league team is based in North Lanarkshire.

Mr Dowens believes the North Lanarkshire project is significant. "John French has done a magnificent job in getting it off the ground. The SVA is not involved in the funding but offers technical information and support. The fact that the national squad players are involved is good as they offer a great role model for the children.

"The players themselves are still on a learning curve but they bring a freshness and enthusiasm which rubs off on the children."

The SVA has always recognised the value of good teaching and offers annual courses for teachers. Rona Brodie, Sportscotland's co-ordinator for the sport, knows the importance of their support."We deal with the staff and direct our attentions to them in the hope that they'll enthuse the kids," she explains. "It's been a successful approach.

"The main thing we are trying to do is make sure that if they have a genuine interest in volleyball, there is a place for them to go to take it further. We want to get more teachers working with children after school and also ensure there are local clubs who can take young players in."

In the Highlands, an approach has been made to include volleyball in Gael Force 10, the regional initiative to resource 10 sports. There is no national league club in the area but Miss Brodie is keen to see the district league expanded. "I think if we can make that stronger, there is a good chance of a national league club coming out of that," she says.

"Inverness has entered the Scottish Cup in the past, but playing national league is expensive given all the travelling involved. But I think, with the right support network in place, it could happen."

The SVA is also working closely with the English Volleyball Association to set up a child protection programme for the sport. If the English association creates a template, the SVA would like to adapt it for Scottish legal requirements.

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