One of Scotland's most successful judo competitors is now in the throes of broadening the sport's base in primary schools, reports Roddy Mackenzie
Marc Preston has been there, done it and now is intent on giving out T-shirts. A Commonwealth judo silver medallist for Scotland 15 years ago, he is getting to grips with helping schoolchildren into the sport.
His list of achievements makes impressive reading - third in the World Cup, third in the World Masters, British Open champion and European team medals - but it is not the elite end of the sport that commands most of his attention these days. As a director of Judo Scotland, Mr Preston is helping to plot a course for the sport to ensure it is all-embracing.
Next Saturday, the sport's governing body is hosting its first Mini-Mon Championship, at Grangemouth Sports Centre, exclusively for children up to P7 who have not won a Scottish title. It is a change of direction for judo in that the championship specifically targets the players who do not regularly compete and are in the sport for fun.
Mr Preston acknowledges that, in the past, children could have been put off entering judo competitions by all the sitting around. First they must wait for an hour-and-a-half while the weight-in process takes place and then possibly for three or four hours before their weight category is called.
Then, if the child has the misfortune to be drawn against the Scottish champion in their particular weight category, the experience can be over within a couple of minutes.
At the Mini-Mon Championship, there will be no formal weight-in. Coaches will indicate each player's weight and the entrants will be split into groups of four, thus guaranteeing at least three fights.
"We've had national championships at this age group before but only for the top 1-2 per cent who are competing regularly," explains Mr Preston. "This is about participation more than winning. We've banned all players who have won Scottish titles: we know what they can do. This is about giving others the chance.
"This opens up a whole new field for us. It's not about youngsters going along and winning 15 medals on the day, but about them enjoying the sport and getting as much as they can out of it.
"Everyone will have something to show for it and those who do not progress to the grand finals will get a T-shirt and a special medal."
The grand finals are expected to take place next month and will give Judo Scotland the chance for some early talent identification. It could also unearth talent that previously may have been overlooked.
"In my day, it was a case of going along to the local sports centre or club and you were entered for competitions almost immediately," Mr Preston says.
"I was British champion at the age of 10 and went on to become British champion four or five times at different junior age groups before progressing to under-21 and then senior level, when I was competing in European and world championships.
"It was a competitive environment, and I have no problems with that, but it meant that a lot of children were left out.
"Less than 2 per cent of children go on to do judo competitively. The majority do it for fun and to have an active lifestyle.
"It's one of Britain's most successful sports," he argues. "If you compare how many judo medals we bring back from the Olympic Games - with a team of around seven players - with how many we bring back in athletics - where we have a team of over 100 - then we stand up pretty well.
"Scotland won 30 medals at the last Commonwealth Games (in Manchester) and judo accounted for a third of those. So there are plenty of opportunities in this sport if you wish to take it up competitively." (However, judo has been dropped from the Commonwealth Games in March.) The numbers participating in judo in Scotland are growing. Judo Scotland has 6,000 registered members and there are 110 registered clubs.
Mr Preston says the venues where judo is taught differ widely, from local community halls to purpose-built sports arenas, but he believes there are now more opportunities than ever for children.
He admits the sport has traditionally seen a large drop-off in numbers after an initial introduction, but Judo Scotland is acting to address that problem.
Mr Preston oversees Destination Judo, a scheme set up for schools in Edinburgh, East Lothian and Fife which, working with Active Schools co-ordinators, gives free tuition to primary pupils. He and other coaches go into schools to give a free lesson and then the children can take up another free lesson at a local club. Mr Preston estimates that more than 10,000 children have taken advantage of the scheme already and by the end of next month 13,000-14,000 will have received free tuition.
"It varies wildly from place to place how many pupils go on to join a club but, for instance, St Margaret's Primary in Dunfermline had 50 children attending the local club," Mr Preston says.
"We don't turn down any school. Even if there is not a club within easy access, we will still go along and take classes in the school.
"It's the 5-12 age group we've been concerning ourselves with for the past 18 months but we're now looking at going into the secondary schools. That may come next year."