An institute to harness Scotland's best young sporting talent has opened its doors. Roddy Mackenzie reports
The Central Scotland Institute of Sport is blazing the trail for some of Scotland's best young sporting talent. Set up last December, it is the first of six regional sports institutes that will plug into the Scottish Institute of Sport in Edinburgh. The others will follow this year. While the Scottish Institute is concerned with elite senior athletes, the regional institutes will provide the next generation of athletes who will progress to the national set-up if they make the grade.
At the Central institute, there are 12 canoeists and eight swimmers, all but one of whom are between the ages of 14 and 19. A hockey player, two curlers and a small group of rugby players will be added shortly.
Young athletes have access to sports-specific coaching, strength and conditioning, physiotherapy and massage, sports medicine, psychology and nutrition.
Allan Campbell, former Scottish national badminton coach, is manager of the institute and, having worked in the Australian Institute of Sport from 1989-93, is well-qualified to gauge its progress.
He argues that, with such top-level facilities and close fitness monitoring, the old excuses that Scotland could not compete on equal terms with the rest of the world will soon be just that.
"This is a new world for these young athletes and they have never had this sort of back-up before as many of them are still at school," Mr Campbell points out. "We are bringing them up to 20 hours a week at their sport."
A key part of the set-up at the Central institute is the Athlete Career and Education (ACE) programme, where individuals will be given instruction on time management and how best to fit their sport around other commitments, particularly school exams.
It is a programme that Mr Campbell admits was copied from an Australian model, but it was a late addition to the institutes over there after it was discovered that top athletes did not necessarily manage themselves well and the stress of being involved full-time in their chosen sport could lead to some dropping out of the programme.
"It is especially important for athletes who are still at school to et advice on this," says Mr Campbell. "Our advisers work very closely with the athletes to ensure they are setting aside time for study as 20 hours a week for sport is quite a lot at this age.
"Even when athletes have left school, it is not necessarily a good thing for them to be full-time in their sport without something else. Strangely, it can encourage a 'coach potato' mentality. They are advised on further education opportunities and we are working with Falkirk College on this."
All of the canoeists at the Central institute are ranked at junior level in Great Britain and the swimmers have all represented Scotland or the UK at youthjunior level.
Two of the swimmers, Darren Ward, 15, and Gemma Ritchie, 16, are currently based on campus at Stirling University in a unique scheme. They both attend Wallace High in Stirling and live at the Andrew Stewart residence hall where, in order to minimise potential disruptions, they stay in a short corridor close to a warden.
The cost of the accommodation - pound;2,200 per swimmer - is met by the swimmers' parents but all other programme costs are met by the institute. A "buddy" system has been put in place where two postgraduate Sports Studies students - one male, one female - will help supervise them when on campus and deal with any day-to-day problems that may arise.
"The swimmers have adapted very well," explains Stirling University's swimming coach, Grant Robins. "Gemma, who has Scottish parents, is from Kent and Darren is from Glasgow. Both sets of parents are supportive.
"This is a new initiative in Britain and, if there had been a similar situation closer to Gemma's home, she'd have gone there. I can see other areas in the country trying this in the future."
Mr Robins has noticed an improvement in both swimmers since they started in September. "Both swimmers have been able to double their hours in the pool. They are in the water twice a day - from 6-8 am and 4-6.30pm - so they can attend classes as normal and then do their homework in the evenings."
Mr Campbell believes it will take 10 years for the full benefits of the institute to kick in. This was how long it took in Australia, but it paid off at last year's Olympic Games in Sydney.