Coach courts the American dream

26th August 2005 at 01:00
Pride and loyalty for our school teams is something we need to learn from the US, basketball coach Donna Finnie tells Roddy Mackenzie.

Donna Finnie subscribes to the American dream. As full-time development officer for basketball in Edinburgh and coach to Scotland's under-18 girls team, she is convinced that putting pride into school sport would go a long way to ensuring future success on the international stage.

Ms Finnie has seen at first hand how the American high school and college system works, having attended Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, and believes it could be adopted here, albeit on a smaller scale.

For the sixth successive year, Ms Finnie has taken a national youth squad to Texas for matches against American high school teams - this time the Scotland under-18 girls team, achieving five wins and seven losses - and she continues to be impressed by the community involvement in high school sport in the United States.

"What you find in America is that the whole community gets involved and they have an alumni system where former pupils support the sports programmes.

"It just seems a healthier environment. On Friday nights, whole families, including grandparents, will come along to watch the high school team playing. The attitude is just different to what it is here."

With school-club links improving and the appointment of active schools co-ordinators, there is hope that schools in Scotland can become the focal point of communities to a greater degree.

The under-18 girls squad had to raise their own funds for the three-week trip: cake stalls, raffles, car washing and bag packing helped. It is not something the American elite, or even high school players, would have to endure.

"The facilities at the high schools we played at were amazing," Ms Finnie says. "We played in an arena with 6,000 seats. It's just a different world."

In American high schools, the academic day finishes at 4pm, after which the sports teams practise for two hours every day, and in addition many players do track training in the summer. Teams also have a strength and conditioning coach.

"The facilities are all laid on," Ms Finnie says. "The basketball girls just need to step into their gym and everything is set up. Whereas here, we pay over pound;100 to hire a court at Meadowbank for an hour."

In Scotland, players train, on average, three times a week for two hours.

Ms Finnie has introduced a weights programme for her players but admits that not all Scottish basketball teams have such preparation.

She knows there is a lot of work to be done but she has employed some American thinking in her coaching here and has had a great degree of success.

In Aberdeen in July, her team won the European Promotion Cup - albeit against seven of the smaller nations in Europe - but it was a rare success abroad for a Scottish basketball team of any age group. The trip to Texas was designed to strengthen the group's bond.

The bulk of the squad is still eligible to play next year and the intention is to step up to the European B Championship.

"I think it's important to keep the players motivated. They need to be pushed to be as good as they can be," Ms Finnie says. "It's one thing winning the Promotion Cup but it is important for the girls to realise there is a big world out there. When you look at what's happening in the States, there are hundreds of thousands of girls who are better than they are."

Even so, the Americans have been impressed with some of the Scottish players. Following the summer trip to Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, two of the under-18 squad have won placements in the United States.

Rose Anderson, a 17-year-old pupil at Portobello High in Edinburgh, is to finish the final two years of her schooling near Fort Worth, so that she can hopefully go on to attend TCU; and Siobhan Moore, who left Our Lady's High in Cumbernauld in the summer, has been offered a place at New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs.

"When we were over there, we met up with Michelle Duff, who left Portobello High as a 16-year-old and is now at Oak Ridge High in Fort Worth," Ms Finnie says. "She was playing against us.

"She told me that when she was at Portobello High, her attendance was not what it should have been, but now, in Texas, if she does not go to school, then she does not get to play basketball.

"It's easy for us to be cynical about it but there is a loyalty to the high school which you just do not get over here and a lot of that is to do with the sports teams. The team is branded and businesses are proud to be associated with it.

"I've tried to do a little of that with my team. I make sure everyone dresses in the same track suits and T-shirts. At the Promotion Cup tournament dinner, we were the only team all dressed the same.

"There was some resistance at first from the girls but they all soon realised the importance and bought into it."

Ms Finnie admits that taking on the Americans in their own backyard was difficult and her opposing coaches could not come to terms with the fact that Scotland has only 60 registered basketball players at under-18 level when most American high schools have at least that number playing.

It is no surprise that Ms Finnie encourages Scottish basketball players to jump at the chance to go to America. In addition to broadening their education, there is the ultimate carrot of winning a professional contract to play in the Women's National Basketball Association.

"I think you have to be realistic. Our best girls are not going to progress much in this country where our senior teams are maybe training once or twice a week.

"The best will need to look at either America or Europe if they want the opportunity to improve their game.

"Ninety per cent of the American girls are playing basketball to get their college education paid for. Only the top 1 or 2 per cent make it to the WNBA and there are no other leagues below that, so once you finish at college, there is nowhere to play.

"Our girls going over there see it as a chance to take the game as far as they can, whether it's in the WNBA or back here and playing in Europe."

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