Slam dunk for the future
it is the height of summer. Volleyballs are usually kept under lock and key in the school gym during the holidays, but the sports hall at St Margaret's High in Airdrie reverberates to the sound of hands slapping against leather. And it's a Saturday morning.
Volleyball was given unprecedented funding when London was awarded the 2012 Olympic Games, and it has become a year-round sport. The Olympics may seem a far-off dream but, if there were careers advisers in sports, volleyball would be on their check-list as players can now earn full-time contracts in the game.
Some of Scotland's best young girls are hard in training as they prepare for the second UK School Games to be held in Coventry from August 23-26.
Volleyball is one of three new sports at the 2007 UK School Games as they expand from the original five in Glasgow last year. Badminton and judo have been added to athletics, swimming, fencing, table tennis and gymnastics. It is an opportunity the sport intends to seize with both hands.
Scotland has never had international school teams in volleyball. This is the closest it has come, with invitations to send boys' and girls' teams to represent Scotland EastSouth and Scotland West North in Coventry. They will compete against Northern Ireland and three teams from Eng- land (North, Central and South).
The Scottish teams have undergone a thorough preparation, including one-day camps in May and June and a five-day training camp at Inverclyde last month.
Fortunately, a Young Seniors programme for juniors was set up four years ago, which provided regular training days for players with a view to future international selection. Creating schools' teams from scratch would have been a tall order, but most of the players selected for Coven-try have been in a junior programme and played in the junior national league.
The UK School Games could not have come at a better time, says Thomas Dowens, director of coaching for the Scottish Volleyball Association. "They have been a bonus for us. The only downside is that the timescale is a bit tight."
The SVA hopes volleyball will become a constant, as it is one of the major Olympic sports.
"We're emphasising to the children that the whole experience will be life enhancing and it's a fantastic opportunity for them. It will give them experience of playing at a multi-sports event and they will have to handle things they have not previously had to deal with. For future international players, it is invaluable to learn what it is like to be part of a team at a major competition."
The SVA has been developing its Young Seniors programme over the past few years, giving it a competitive edge. They take players at age 15 to 16 on a three-year development cycle and, in the second or third year, take them to compete in England or Europe. The UK School Games dovetails well into its programme.
Scotland will take a total of 48 players to Coventry for the four teams, with a dozen coaching staff.
Simon Loftus, the girls' coach, argues that, if the game is to take off seriously in this country, there must be more girls involved. His own Glasgow Mets' club has worked hard to recruit players from schools and he is fortunate to have Polish-born Klaudia Wieczorak, 15, in his squad for Coventry. She has a solid grounding in the game.
"From the age of nine, Klaudia was drilling every day in Poland and now she's 15 you can see how good she is compared to everyone else."
Many of the junior national league players practise two to four hours a week, but that's not nearly enough, he says. "All of a sudden, we get the Olympics and we have to train every day. It should have been happening years ago."
When Mr Loftus was young-er, he went to Bel-gium where players aged 16 and 17 had 10 years of volleyball experience. "The kids here are 15 to 16 years old, and have had just a year-and-a-half's experience. So how can we ever close the gap?"
A lot of children play volleyball in festivals, but there is no place for them to go when they get to 12 or 13. His club, Glasgow Mets, has been successful, he says, because it taps into schools that have volleyball going on: "We've offered them an outlet, so we have kids coming from Stonelaw High, Hunter High and Holyrood Secondary."
Glasgow Mets takes children from the age of 12, but they have also given coaching in nine primary schools, to allow them an alternative to football.
"Most kids are not aware of volleyball other than on the beach," says Mr Loftus. "None of them has a picture of what international volleyball looks like and they don't understand the power and athleticism that goes into it."
He believes the Scottish Volleyball Association has done pretty well at getting schools into men's international matches in Glasgow, but adds: "A lot of the time we're dragging schools in who don't have links to the clubs. You can get kids enthusiastic about the game by doing this but, if there's no outlet for them, it's lost."
There are four or five players who if given a three- or four-year programme, would get into the Scotland national team, he says. But, more importantly, there are 10 others who could go on and play national league at whatever level they choose.
"They're very excited about going to the UK School Games. They have a taste of competition now. We've pushed it and said that it's representing Scotland at age-group level. There are no caps but they are meaningful matches. That's what the game needs."