Learning basic techniques is essential before children can develop advanced sporting skills,says Jerome Monahan
Stephen and Andrea Bond, co-partners in a personal fitness company in Hertfordshire, remember the moment they decided to get involved in school sport. "We were on holiday and two thirds of the tourists in our hotel were Irish or English and one third Spanish," says Stephen. "It was easy to tell the Spanish kids apart - they were fitter and slimmer."
Coupled with growing alarm in government and the media about the status and popularity of PE in primary schools, this insight has led them to use a novel approach which seeks to instil basic sporting techniques in young people.
"The important thing is to latch on to children's natural enthusiasm for physical activity," says Andrea, "and use it to help them develop the basic skills that are the building blocks of most sports running, acceleration, stopping, dodging and co-ordination."
To this end, Andrea, together with other members of Bond Fitness, have undertaken SAQ (speed, agility, quickness) training - an approach that inculcates young people with fundamental movement techniques.
"SAQ has been around for some time, familiar territory to many specialist PE teachers and club sports coaches," adds Andrea. "But it is less likely to be known among primary teachers, not least because the average three-year training course contains only two or three hours on the subject."
Also innovative has been the Bonds' offer of specialist skills and equipment to some Hertfordshire schools for pound;350 per class for seven sessions - the same price they charge individual clients. "It's a very cost-effective way for schools to offer an hour of planning, preparation and assessment time to the member of staff who might normally have taken the lesson," says Stephen.
"On top of that, schools can be assured they are providing pupils with a true grounding in sport - one that will promote the kind of neural pathway development that ensures the techniques they have learnt will not be lost, and will help ensure their later experience of sport remains positive."
Applauding the Bonds' initiative, Alan Pearson, managing director of SAQ International, says: "It can be destructive introducing specialist sports too early. A child who is called upon to throw a ball and who has not internalised the right technique may find the experience a real turn-off, dampening their interest from then on. We assume that children learn to run, for example, automatically, but in this age when computer games and personal safety issues can weigh against playground and street play, this cannot be assumed."
That's the theory. The practice emerges on a miserably wet Tuesday in February at St John the Baptist Primary near Ware. In the school's modest hall, Andrea is due to take a Year 56 class through the third of their training sessions.
"The weather's a shame," says class teacher Winsome Batt. "We've had to split the class as the space can't accommodate them all, but even so they will be able to get a lot done in the time."
St John the Baptist is fortunate in having Winsome Batt; a former top track and field sportswoman, she represented Jamaica in the high jump in the 1970s, so is well placed to judge the Bond training sessions. "Apart from the value of the drills, there's the excitement associated with having an outsider come in to deliver a lesson - it makes them feel grown-up."
The session begins with dynamic flexing. "Rather than making children do the kind of static stretches you see people performing in gyms," she says, "the idea is to get the youngsters moving across the grid, incorporating the flexes as they go." On cue, the children carry out a number of runs, first on the balls of their feet, then sideways; then making ankle flicks with every stride.
"Spotty dogs," Andrea calls out, and the children start a dash across the hall involving a simultaneous right and left armleg chopping movement. The name is appropriate - the children resemble Andy Pandy's companion from 1950s children's TV.
"This improves shoulder and arm mobility," explains Winsome. "It also activates core muscles, improves balance and increases body temperature in a fun way." The exercises that follow incorporate leg and arm stretches, skips and lunges, all of which teach good mobility and co-ordination alongside the job of properly preparing children for the session. Next, the class is asked to set out a series of plastic mini-hurdles, one of a number of special SAQ props.
As the children take part in a number of individual and relay races, Winsome points out how the hurdles automatically encourage them to run effectively, avoiding flat-footed landings and pumping their arms efficiently.
"There has been a huge improvement in the children's running technique since the first session I took here before Christmas," says Andrea. "Then they were like elephants - the noise of their footfalls was deafening and the equipment went flying everywhere; now listen!" The only sound is a gentle tapping as the children execute efficient light-footed progress up and down the grid. Then the hurdles are replaced by rope ladders. These are laid out across the room and the children pass down them, carrying out steps and jumps redolent of hopscotch.
"Many of the techniques we teach are the sorts of things children once would have learnt playing informal playground games," Andrea says. "But now health and safety and other factors mean children don't do these things in their own time any more, and they need incorporating into formal PE sessions."
As the second group comes out for their half-lesson, there's a chance to quiz the children about what they've been learning. "I enjoy the explosive acceleration activities," says 10-year-old Connor. "We use mini-bungee ropes which a partner holds while we try to run away from them. When they let go, you just fly and it definitely makes you start running more quickly. The sessions are working for me."
Gabby (11) says she has been using the techniques before netball: "They are great ways of warming up before a game, ones you can use for yourself."
After the session, Andrea reflects on the sorts of hurdles she has had to jump herself, in getting the idea of this training accepted by schools.
"It's very difficult to find a time when the appropriate person (usually the headteacher) has 20 minutes to spare so that I can explain the value of what we're offering."
At St John the Baptist she had an advantage, as her own two boys attend the school, but as headteacher Margaret Jolley explains, taking on the idea was far from automatic: "The presentation Andrea made was very persuasive, and * was eager that she should make it to the whole staff - there's a lot that can be borrowed from these techniques to keep children alert throughout the day, even in front of their desks before normal lessons."
* Bond Fitness Tel: 0845 0703007
* SAQ International Tel: 01664 810101
* SAQ Juniors - Developing Good Movement Skills for 4-11 Year Olds by Alan Pearson and David Hawkins (A C Black, pound;12.99)