Competition helps to stretch players
If recent thinking has been to play down the competitive side of sport for primary school children, then Scottish badminton is bucking the trend. The game's governing body, Badminton Scotland, staged its first under-11 national championships in Edinburgh last weekend.
Under-11 is now the base level of national badminton competition, with under-13, under-15, under-17, under-19 and under-21 championships already well established.
Badminton Scotland argues that by launching the new championship, it was responding to demand. The event, sponsored by the Bank of Scotland, attracted 45 entries for the boys' singles tournament and 18 for the girls', with entries received from as far afield as Lerwick.
It has been hosting badminton carnivals for primary children for five years - as many as 20,000 have been introduced to the sport in this way - and to Anne Smillie, the highly-regarded chief executive of Badminton Scotland, a national competition was an obvious progression.
"I think you need competition to keep children interested in sport. As long as there is not too much competition at an early age and they are not playing week-in, week-out, then it is fine," she says.
"It is not as if children are travelling all over Scotland for only one match. The tournament is played in pools, so players are guaranteed a few matches."
The fun side is important, she argues, and the governing body does not want the competition to become too elitist.
"This is the first championship at this age group and it will develop from here," she says. The date is not ideal, coming at the end of the season, but she hopes it can be arranged for earlier next year. And, once word gets out, she thinks the organisers will be inundated with entries in future years.
"We needed to get young players into the frame of mind of playing competitive matches at primary school, so that they were prepared better when they came to play in under-13 national championships," she says.
The game is undergoing a massive push in Scotland to nurture the grassroots in the run-up to the Sudirman Cup - the world mixed team championship held every two years - which Glasgow will host in 2007.
Badminton Scotland's development officer, Marie Christie, is responsible for ensuring it takes advantage of being in the world media spotlight during the Sudirman Cup, and setting up a development framework so that any increased demand from new players can be met.
"Marie was brought on board specifically to increase participation in schools and to ensure there is a legacy for the sport after the Sudirman Cup," Ms Smillie explains. "The last time we held it, in 1997, we put so much energy into hosting the event that we did not take advantage of the profile we had to get more youngsters involved."
The sport is in pretty good fettle at junior level. In March, Falkirk's Calum Menzies, who turned 19 last week, became the first Scot for 17 years to win a medal (bronze) at the European Junior Championships and four Scots reached the quarter-finals.
There are currently 12 players attending the Scottish Institute of Sport with an eye to medals at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne next March and beyond. The youngest, Linda Sloan, is 15.
Since Ms Christie took over as development officer nine months ago, school affiliations have risen from 370 to just over 400. She has been working closely with schools to increase participation and admits challenging times lie ahead.
"You tend to find that physical education is the first subject to get dropped by pupils," she says, "so we are working closely with active school co-ordinators to set up after-school clubs.
"There tends to be a lot of fitness work involved, so children get the benefit of the classes whether they pursue badminton or not. But I think if you can get children interested in badminton through fitness, then there is more chance of the sport holding on to them.
"We have now set up regional squads in every area, which are based not so much on age as on ability. And in some areas, like Edinburgh, they are specifically targeting primary children.
"What we want to establish is sustainable junior clubs, so that young players have somewhere to go and play."
The under-11 national championships are an important piece in the jigsaw, as Ms Christie seeks to piece together a sustainable junior programme.
"We're responding to demand. The children want to compete," she underlines.
"We're not forcing competition on them.
"I think children are naturally competitive from the cradle and they want to see themselves do well.
"At under-11 age, we're ensuring they get lots of games and they will be given a ranking so that they can say, for example, they came 25th in the event. I think that's nice for them."
She concedes that competing for young players against so many different sports is difficult, especially as football has such a huge media profile.
Getting badminton on to the school curriculum would be a step forward.
With this in mind, the sport's governing body has reassessed how the game should be taught in schools.
"Getting badminton on to the curriculum is a massive challenge for me," says Ms Christie, "but we're already piloting a programme for schools that looks at teaching badminton in a one-court hall.
"We have tutors in place to develop the programme and teach the teachers and we've made presentations at director of education level."
Pilot teaching programmes have taken place in Glasgow, central Scotland, Aberdeen and Edinburgh and have been well received.
"Glasgow is looking at putting an eight-week block of badminton on the curriculum," she says.
"What we are stressing is that badminton is no longer about two players or four players on a court and the rest of the class sitting around watching.
This programme shows that 30 children in a class can all be active during a lesson and all get a taste of the game."