Net closes on future heroes
The Scottish Badminton Union (SBU) has found that a closer working relationship with its sister body - the Scottish Schools Badminton Union (SSBU) - is achieving net gains.
With the aid of a four-year funding package from the Lottery, junior elite programmes have been set up at Under-13, Under-15, Under-17 and Under-19 levels. Squads now meet on a weekly basis and receive top-level coaching on a ratio of one coach to four players, and the SBU gets a chance to identify talent at a younger age.
Players used to be lost to the sport at an early age, but now there is a framework in place which means that the best young players will achieve their full potential.
"We were very keen to get access to players at a younger age, and the fact that the SBU is now working in harmony with the schools has ensured that the players can be monitored more closely," explains Dan Travers, the national high performance coach for badminton at the Scottish Institute of Sport.
"The youngest we are looking at taking children into the elite squads is 11 or 12. I believe that before that, youngsters need to experience as many sports as possible and get enjoyment out of them.
"Not every youngster will want to play badminton but we want to instil good technique in players from as early an age as we can. By the age of 17 or 18, we want them to be fit for the Scottish Institute of Sport and able to make the leap from junior to senior level, which is a considerable one.
"We want to work more on fitness levels of young players in the squad, as we still believe it is not as high as it was in the past."
Travers, who won a Commonwealth Games doubles gold medal in Edinburgh in 1986 with Billy Gilliland, knows all about the value of learning good habits at an early age. Self-motivated as a player, he did not receive any proper coaching until the age of 17 and, even then, it only lasted for a year. But he went on to reach the top level in the sport and become Scottish national director of coaching before he joined the Institute.
But times have changed, with the sport now fully professional at international level and players needing to devote more time to fitness and technique. "It's mind-blowing what's required these days, but we're fortunate in that we have some good young, athletic players coming through in Scotland," he says. "The situation is not bad now that we ave a complete programme with the SBU and schools working together. If we can keep working this way, the 11 to 12-year-olds in the junior elite squads will be very good players by the time they reach 17 or 18.
"The Lottery funding is initially only for four years and we just hope it will be renewed at the end of it, when we can show how much we've progressed."
The SBU has found that adopting a lighter approach to coaching clinics can also work to its advantage, as it seeks to increase its player base. The governing body started holding mass coaching days for schoolchildren 10 years ago and, while they proved hugely successful in terms of numbers, some youngsters were not getting the full benefit.
"The number we had attending in those days was very good, but a lot of children were maybe sitting on a bench for most of the day as they were too shy to try the game," admits Anne Smillie, chief executive of the SBU. "Maybe it was too much like school with a teacher - in this case a badminton coach - telling them what to do.
"So, from April last year, we changed the format and made it more of a carnival. In November, we had 1,600 at our Edinburgh carnival and in Perth in February, we had 1,200 schoolchildren.
"We have another in Aberdeen on April 1-2 and we have had 600 applications so far to attend the one in Glasgow, which will be held alongside the European Championships in April."
The SBU has issued an invitation to every schoolchild in Scotland to attend the European Championship coaching carnival and has written to every school.
The secret of the SBU's success lies in the new format it has adopted for the carnivals, and it believes that by making it more of a fun environment, the youngsters will be more inclined to take an interest in the game and at least a few will pursue it all the way to the junior elite squads.
"What we do at the carnivals is have 10 courts operating over a two-hour session. We have different games on each court and offer prizes for each discipline," explains Miss Smillie. "The games can be such things as a basic fitness test or see who can hit the shuttlecock farthest, or see who can land it in a certain area. But the most popular games are see who can beat the professional coach or the professional player, as there is always an international player in attendance.
"We get letters all the time from schoolchildren saying how much they enjoy this aspect of the carnivals and asking when we'll be holding another."