East Lothian's Youth Games have cast the spotlight on its core sports programme for S1s and S2s. Roddy Mackenzie reports on two years of development work
East Lothian last week staged a sports extravaganza of its own in Olympics year. More than 500 S1 and S2 children from secondary schools across the authority attended the East LothianYouth Games at Meadowmill Sports Centre in Tranent. It has been an ambitious project but organisers hope it will be the first Games of many.
In 1996 the council appointed development officers for six sports: football, rugby, hockey, volleyball, swimming and badminton.
Basketball has since replaced swimming as one of its core sports (the growth of swimming has devolved to the community) and by working closely with schools, the sports programme has gone from strength to strength. The Youth Games marked the end of its second year and were an opportunity to showcase local talent in each sport, as well as a chance for the schools to test themselves against others.
The six core sports were introduced into the curriculum for S1 and S2 pupils at the six secondaries in the authority (Musselburgh Grammar, Dunbar Grammar, Knox Academy, North Berwick High, Preston Lodge High and Ross High). Each school was given six-week blocks of instruction in the sports and invited to send teams to the Youth Games.
"An important part of the block sessions is the senior pupils' coach education programme, as it is not just about developing players but also coaches," says Margaret Ann Fleming, the volleyball development officer.
"Senior pupils, usually in S5 and S6, but sometimes even S4s, are put through introductory or level one coaching courses several weeks before the sport is introduced to their school. This means they are able to assist the physical education staff with implementing the programme. It also means that when that core activity moves on, the school will always have a coaching legacy so that they can play the sport in future."
Eamon John, manager of healthy living services for East Lothian, says: "I think if pupils move to a different school, then their experience of sport is not the same. We wanted to create something that was consistent across the schools in East Lothian and, in the second year, take it on a step by introducing a competitive element where schools could compete against each other.
"We had seen how successful the Youth Games had been when they were held in Scotland a few years ago. We wanted to do something like it on a smaller scale and felt it was the right time with the Olympics being held this year.
"The S1-S2 age group is ideal for this type of thing and we hope to make it an annual event. It's difficult to do for the older age group as you are then hitting exam schedules."
East Lothian has no volleyball tradition and used to have no teams in the national league. Now there are East Lothian teams in the Scottish Junior leagues, the region hosts the biggest annual junior tournament in Scotland and players have gone on to some of Scotland's top teams. Further acknowledgement of the sport's local standing came this year when it hosted the semi-finals of the Scottish Cups for the first time.
Through the programme, even the more established sports, such as football, have grown in East Lothian. While there has never been a shortage of keen youngsters, the coaching structures were not in place. Now Walter Borthwick, the football development officer, is happy that the area is grooming players to make the step up to professional level.
"We reckon there are 10 players every year who go on to sign for professional clubs. Not all of those will go on and make it, but these are players who are signing S forms with clubs," he says.
"We have had players like Garry O'Connor, Steven Whittaker and Kevin Thomson at Hibs. It's not just Scottish clubs, as we have had Darren Fletcher at Manchester United and Ian Black signing for Blackburn Rovers.
And in the women's game Kirsty McBride, who now plays for Scotland, is from Tranent.
"Some areas of East Lothian were not renowned for producing sporting talent before, but now there are players coming through.
"We have 35 registered schoolchildren on our goalkeepers' course and 70 girls registered to attend our coaching sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays."
It is not just ability that determines whether a school pupil will go on to be a success at his or her chosen sport. Many factors have to be considered.
"More and more these days it is as much about trying to find athletes as it is athleticism that is required at the highest level in football," says Mr Borthwick.
"You just need to look at how big and strong the Arsenal players are, and they all have great skill into the bargain. And the French national side.
Martin O'Neill has also brought in big, strong players at Celtic, as he has recognised that is what is needed now at the top level.
"So we are looking at children to see what their diet is and what their social habits are, as well as looking at their football ability."
Success also requires commitment. "Ideally, we need to be working with players for four days a week, as opposed to once or twice," says Mr Borthwick. "Maybe there is a case for giving schoolchildren a day off a week to concentrate on sporting activities, or even an afternoon off, if we are to develop their potential."