French lessons give boost to youngsters
There is a hint of Clark Kent about Erik Milowski. Certainly, the mild-mannered volleyball coach has taken on a superhuman task as the sport's development officer for Aberdeenshire Council.
The 38-year-old Frenchman, who took up his post in November, gives the impression that not only is he here to develop but to revolutionise. He knows that he will need to work on changing attitudes but he has a persuasive nature and is passionate about raising standards.
He has the credentials. Mr Milowski has been coaching for 17 years and working as a professional volleyball coach in France for the past seven.
Primarily, he has been involved with teaching children from as young as five but he was also head coach to a women's professional team, RC Villebon 91, in the French league in 1999-2000.
As head coach to the regional centre for popular education and sports (CREPS) in Lille in 2002, he guided his under-15 boys' team to the national title in France and the team won nine international tournaments in France and Belgium.
Mr Milowski is also a black belt in judo.
Kenny Barton, the chief executive of the Scottish Volleyball Association, can hardly believe that such a calibre of coach should want to come to Scotland simply to broaden his horizons. He is unquestionably the best qualified coach to take up such a position here, though coming must have been a shock in terms of the lack of resources available to volleyball in Scotland.
Mr Milowski sees his new job as something of a crusade. He is intent on building a regional volleyball squad for children in the area, on a smaller scale than the CREPS programme but on the same principles.
Within two or three weeks of arriving, he had sent off 150 letters to local schoolchildren's parents and he has since sent out follow-up letters to encourage children to attend coaching.
The Lille institute is one of 23 regional centres throughout France which develop youth sport. In addition to volleyball, weightlifting, basketball, wrestling, table tennis, hockey, athletics and fencing are part of the Lille programme. They prepare children to seek excellence in their chosen discipline.
Those interested in volleyball, for example, receive 12-14 hours of coaching a week and a typical day would see them study from 8-10.30am, train between 11am and noon, resume their academic work from 2-2.30pm and then train again from 5-7pm. Mr Milowski oversaw a programme with 14 boys and 10 girls and the players were all residential students.
The best players have the chance to advance at S5-S6 level to national centres for the sport at Montpellier (for boys) or Paris (for girls).
"There are three factors that students on the programme must observe," Mr Milowski explains. "Firstly, they must be good students and do well with academic studies. Secondly, they have to train properly as volleyball players and, thirdly, they must follow the rules of CREPS."
Central and local government invest heavily in the programme and many experts believe that France leads the way in developing young athletes and their success in top-level sport, not least football, is testament to that.
Mr Milowski, having worked with the touring Scotland junior women's team in France a couple of years ago, knew not to expect the same backing for volleyball when he arrived here.
"It's a different level. The SVA works hard to improve the quality of volleyball and the standard of its coaching courses is very high," he says, "but in Scotland you can get a coaching qualification after going on a two-day course. In France, you cannot be paid to coach volleyball until you have studied full-time for a year to gain your qualification."
Scotland needs to develop facilities and a different attitude towards all sports, he believes.
"Football clubs are well organised and have more people involved and can get most of the slots at sports halls," he observes. "But Thierry Henry never played football indoors.
"There are two million footballers in France and they have excellent outdoor facilities. There should be no need to play football indoors.
"Sports halls are for indoor sports."
As his starting point for development work, Mr Milowski has been working mainly with P5 children as he believes it is easier to hold their interest than that of teenagers.
He believes that primary children in Scotland are, in terms of physical development, some two years behind French children of the same age. He fully supports the Scottish Executive's initiative to get children active but argues that sport has to be treated more seriously in schools.
"According to a recent survey, the children in Scotland are among the fattest in Europe. The ancestors of Rob Roy should be ashamed!
"Sooner of later the Government will need to pay a lot of money for health, so there is a great need to develop sport.
"Scotland needs to develop facilities and a different mentality" he says.
"From what I have seen of school sports here, it is all down to one teacher who does everything by himself and when he leaves that sport finishes.
"But Scotland has a lot of positive things going for it. There is a pride in playing for your country and a strong national identity and the players I have worked with are intelligent and willing to learn. Sometimes France does not get the results it should because there is an arrogance about the way it plays."
Mr Milowski is under no illusions that he will have to break down barriers if he is to succeed in his quest to give his sport a higher profile. He is prepared for the superhuman effort.