Active youngsters on track for success
gone are the days when athletics was shoehorned into the summer term. The most promising athletes have become a dedicated bunch, training through winter nights to peak for the track season.
But Scottish Athletics, the governing body for the sport, is now working hard to make it more accessible all year round to a growing number of school athletes.
If last month's Scottish Power Scottish Schools track and field championships proved one thing, it was that Scotland is still capable of producing decent athletes. Beth Potter of Bearsden Academy, East Dunbartonshire, smashed previous championship bests in both the 1,500m and 3,000m, beating Yvonne Murray's 26-year record in the 1,500m and taking almost 12 seconds off the previous 3,000m best.
On July 21, Scotland's best young athletes compete at the British Schools track and field international in Newport, an event usually dominated by English schools. It will show the current crop of Scots where they stand.
At a time when the health and fitness of children has never been higher on the political agenda, Scottish Athletics is attempting to get more youngsters involved. It has been setting up community Run, Jump and Throw clubs.
The idea is to involve children who have been taking part in athletics on a casual basis and provide them with a link to move up to their local athletics club.
Club coaches say youngsters who join are short of basic fitness, as well as skills, so the new clubs are designed to prepare them for the established clubs.
The Run, Jump and Throw clubs have been set up by local authorities working with athletics clubs to offer children aged five to 14 a chance to improve their skills in a wide range of activities.
At the younger end, the emphasis will be on fun, and at 13 or 14 there will be an introduction to training as enjoyment.
The clubs will also give youngsters an all-year programme, running in three blocks from August to December, January to April and May to June. They can be run indoors or out, using a variety of established programmes such as Elevating Athletics, Sportshall Athletics and the Norwich Union Shine awards, as well as utilising specialist coaches.
A competitive element, such as a time trial or a jump or throw competition, is introduced at the end of each block to monitor participants' progress.
Sport Central has been running the Run, Jump and Throw clubs successfully, feeding into the two established clubs in the area, Falkirk Victoria and Central AC.
Liz Morris, its athletics regional manager, believes the initiative bridges a vital gap. "The feedback we were getting from club coaches was that children were coming to the club, but their levels of fitness were poor," she says.
"What we have been doing in the summer term is transition clubs for children who have been at the Run, Jump and Throw clubs and want to step up to an athletics club. These have worked well. Central Athletics Club is now seeing kids coming to it with skills and good fitness. They can take it from there."
Athletics still suffers from a chronic shortage of coaches, but it is hoped the Run, Jump and Throw clubs will attract more volunteers. Ms Morris wants to see a greater number of parents get involved.
As a follow-on from the Run, Jump and Throw clubs, Scottish Athletics is rolling out a Giant Heptathlon, aimed at secondary schools. Fife, Tayside, Glasgow and Central have already initiated programmes. These are seen as an early form of talent development, with school teams engaging in sprinting, hurdling, relays, endurance runs, jumps and throws, under the supervision of regional, club and local authority coaches.
An endurance run could be racing to collect 100 bean bags from a circle in a sports hall or an outside sports pitch and being timed to see how long it takes. Typical sprints and hurdles would be over 60m, throws would involve a foam javelin and a shot-put, and there would be a long jump and triple jump.
Ms Morris says: "There is a drop-off in children taking part in athletics during teenage years, and we are looking to address that by introducing the Giant Heptathlon in secondary schools. We held our first at Falkirk High and it was a great success.
"The concept is to have, for example, eight high schools taking part in the events over a full day. They are coached in the morning and each team rotates round the stations. Then, in the afternoon, there is a competition among the schools, and every performance gets scored. So everyone gets a chance, but it is scored on a team basis and every point contributes to the overall team result.
"The children have a great time and there is a tremendous atmosphere in the afternoon, when teams compete against each other."