Judo Scotland is introducing a targeted training regime to help talented children reach competition level, writes Roddy Mackenzie
Judo Scotland plans to adopt a more scientific approach to coaching children for competition at all levels with a long-term athlete development programme that is expected to begin within the next year.
The programme is to be implemented throughout the UK and Judo Scotland will be asking for feedback from Scottish athletes and coaches about how well it prepares children in five stages from beginners to world-class performance levels.
The basis of the programme is to ensure that competitive athletes achieve their full potential, whatever their talent level.
Research done by Dr Istvan Balyi, the Hungarian expert on athlete development, indicates there are critical periods in a person's life when the effects of training can be maximised. Studies have shown that children should be given specific training during periods of rapid growth and the type of training should change with the patterns of growth. As boys' and girls' growth rates are different, ages at which they move from stage to stage also differ.
In judo, the five stages are FUNdamentals (girls five to eight years, boys six to nine) when they are learning basic movements and skills and having fun, then learning to train (girls eight to 11 years, boys nine to 12), training to train (girls 11-14, boys 12-15), training to compete (girls 14-16, boys 16-18) and training to win (girls 16-plus, boys 18-plus).
After the beginners' stage, they move through stages of motor co-ordination and skill development to aerobic conditioning, to increasing intensity and weight training, to specialisation and performance enhancement.
It is a radical approach to training young athletes. Judo already has laid a pathway for them to progress through regional development programmes to junior national programmes and on to the elite Scottish Institute of Sport squad, which numbers some 30 judokas.
"The long-term athlete development programme is a slow process," says Derek Scott, Judo Scotland's development officer. "It is a big step and will take quite a commitment from everyone.
"It's been handed down from British level but it will dovetail into our existing programmes and it should help us to spot and identify talent more effectively."
Scottish judo is in a reasonable state at the moment and the number of junior athletes is swelling, says Mr Scott. Last year's Scottish Schools'
Championships - held for the second time - attracted a capacity entry of 300 athletes from more than 100 schools. The third championships, to be held at Glasgow's Kelvin Hall on December 7, will be similarly attended.
Now there are plans to hold regional qualifying events before next year's championships.
"We've had a 10 per cent rise in membership of Judo Scotland and most of that has come in the under-16 age group. We're now up to 6,000 members overall," says Mr Scott.
"A lot of the younger players are coming in because we have professional coaches now actively targeting schools.
"Many of our previous champions such as Billy Cusack and Mark Preston (who won bronze and silver medals respectively at the 1990 Commonwealth Games) now spend a lot of time coaching. The fact they have been there and done it before is a great motivation for youngsters coming into the sport."
Judo Scotland is also looking at supporting coaches in clubs with parent members as assistants, which would help to cope with the number of youngsters wanting to get to grips with the sport. A Club Helper's Award scheme is to be introduced: a pilot project at a club in Melrose has seen half a dozen parents sign up and become involved in learning the sport.
Not all of the schemes that the governing body is introducing have won wholehearted support, however. A points scheme started this season for junior athletes to enable selection for the British Championships, with awards for placing in competitions, was criticised by some parents on Judo Scotland's website because points could not be transferred if a child moved to a higher weight category.
It was claimed that children could be in danger of scrutinising their diet too closely to remain in a weight band, when putting on weight is a natural part of growing up. Some felt it was an unnecessary pressure to put on young athletes and could lead to eating disorders.
Mr Scott is aware of the criticism and says such comments will be taken on board. However, he points out that there has also been a lot of positive feedback.
"It's the first time we've had points scoring for selection for the British Championships and it's a trial this year. We'll certainly look at its merits for next year. We'll review the situation and listen to comments," he promises.
"But, in the end, it was, by and large, the right players that were selected. A good team went to Crystal Palace for the Junior Open championships and our medal haul was better than it had been in previous years, with five gold, three silver and 11 bronze awards."
At last month's Scottish Junior Open, which attracted athletes from Iceland, Denmark and Sweden as well as across the UK, Scots won three medals and seven 5th placings.
Earlier this year four Scottish Institute of Sport judo athletes visited Moscow to train with some of the best in Russia.
The development of a judo academy at Ratho, near Edinburgh, will be another important step for Judo Scotland. It is due to be completed by the end of the year and will provide national junior and senior squad members with a state-of-the-art training centre.
Judo is already one of Scotland's most successful sports in terms of world, European and Commonwealth championship medals. New blocks are being put in place to ensure that continues.