Sole searching

30th July 2010 at 01:00
Fishing may seem an unlikely sport for teenagers, but it's hooking those who aren't engaged with conventional PE, have low self-esteem and struggle to concentrate, as Diana Hinds reports

Courtney has conquered her fear of the squirming red maggots in the box beside her and expertly threads one on to her hook. Within minutes she is proudly holding up a one-and-a-quarter-pound carp. Like all good anglers, she is happy to tell the tale.

"I was really excited - but also a bit worried: I haven't caught a big one before and I wasn't sure what to do," she says excitedly. "It's about staying focused and trying not to get distracted."

This is only the second time she has picked up a fishing rod. The first time was nearly her last, however, when she caught sight of the wriggling maggots. "The first time I saw them I thought, `I'm not touching a maggot, no way,'" she says. "But then I wanted to show the boys - and show myself - that I wasn't scared."

Angling does not feature on many lists of school sports, but Courtney, 15, is one of a group of youngsters at Colmers School in Birmingham who are getting a taste of life on the riverbank.

For Linda Wilcox, director of sport at Colmers, one of the attractions of fishing is in reaching pupils who are turned off by more conventional school activities.

"We've got children here who don't take part in any sport," she says. "We want them to have something they enjoy that they can do when they leave school - and angling is something the whole family can do."

Colmers linked up with the Angling Development Board (ADB), which promotes the sport, at the start of last term. After three sessions learning the basics in school, and practising on plastic fish, the group of nine 12 to 16-year-olds have the opportunity to do it for real at nearby Alvechurch Fisheries, a series of well-stocked fishing lakes of various sizes.

First time out, all but two of them managed to catch something. This week, they settle along the banks on their blue plastic boxes with anticipation. Specialist coaches hover nearby, ready to help with maggots, nets or disgorging fish hooks.

For Courtney, fishing was an appealing alternative to PE lessons that had failed to engage her. "I'm not really keen on sport but I thought I would try angling because it is something new," she says. "It's always guys doing it, so I thought maybe a girl could have a go."

Martin, also 15, is the only one of the group to have fished before. He was taught by his father and now takes part in competitions. "You get to see all kinds of beautiful fish," he says. "You might have to wait for an hour or so to get a bite, but it's relaxing. It gets me de-stressed from all the coursework and preparing for exams."

This points to another of the benefits. Studies by social research firm Substance, funded by the National Lottery, suggest fishing can help to motivate pupils at risk of exclusion and help them develop personal, social and emotional skills. It was also found to boost self-esteem, attendance and ability to concentrate.

The effect on self-esteem is obvious as Benjamin, 14, boasts of catching "11 in 50 minutes". He is locked in friendly competition with his friends to see who can catch the most. "Last week, it wasn't so good and I got no fish," he laments. "I know I missed five strikes because I didn't pull it up quick enough."

But fishing can also frustrate. Tom, 15, has caught three twigs so far: "I can be quite patient, but not always. It can be quite annoying when you catch a twig."

A successful catch is essential for novices to get the "buzz", the sense of achievement that makes them want to carry on with the sport, so commercial fisheries are ideal places to start, with the chances of catching fish greatly enhanced.

Fishing also offers a way for schools to build links with community organisations, in this case angling clubs. About 80 schools in the UK are involved in fishing clubs via extended schools programmes or the youth sport scheme Sport Unlimited.

Angling is also helping schools to meet the government target of five hours' sporting activity a week for every pupil, says Mrs Wilcox. "Our current target is to offer three hours of sport per pupil per week, so we're looking at more `introverted' sports, such as angling, indoor rowing, horse riding and fencing. It's about giving everybody an opportunity," she says.

One drawback is that fishing does not necessarily involve much exercise. Peter Rice, a coach with the ADB, admits it is a "quiet sport". Game fishing - casting mid-stream and battling against the current to catch trout or salmon - demands far more physical exertion than the coarse fishing pupils are trying at Alvechurch. But even then there is generally a fair amount of walking and carrying equipment, as well as the benefits of being out in the open.

The sport increases children's awareness of the natural environment. In one sea-fishing programme, organised by the charity Get Hooked on Fishing (GHOF), pupils went on from fishing to organise and film a beach-cleaning project.

Teachers at Beaconside Primary, in Rubery, Birmingham, linked some real fishing with a key stage 2 habitats topic, bringing a group of 13 children and their parents to Alvechurch Fisheries with help from the ADB. The school now hopes to offer angling on a regular basis.

"It definitely brought our science topic to life," says class teacher Lorraine Lorenz. "It offers success and achievement to another group of pupils - and one pupil, who works at a very low academic level, caught the biggest fish. It was also very good for concentration: many parents said afterwards they wished their children would sit still for that long in class."

One of the joys is that everyone can succeed, including those with disabilities, special needs or behavioural problems, and although traditionally male-dominated, more girls and women are showing interest. Bridget Dawson, a keen angler, is project co-ordinator for GHOF in Bolton and is funded by Bolton council to run schemes targeted at youngsters at risk of exclusion for anti-social behaviour.

"With many sports, you have got to be fit, or have the right gear, or be tall or fast: with fishing you don't," she says. "So the child who has never been any good at any sport suddenly finds they can excel."

She sees "huge changes" in youngsters she works with - improved focus, better teamwork and social skills, and better behaviour at school "because they don't want to get kicked off fishing".

Marion Lowe, GHOF chief executive, says the charity has had some of its biggest successes with children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), who seem to find fishing "very calming".

She ascribes the beneficial effects to fishing's mixture of "loose" and "tight" properties: "It's disciplined, and young people have to comply with certain rules for their own safety, like not running along the bank. But if they just want to sit there with their own thoughts for a couple of hours, no one is going to stop them."

Colmers pupil Benjamin is enjoying this aspect of the sport. "It's quiet and it's a nice time to think," he says. "I've been thinking about my coursework: I've got a presentation at the end of the week and I've been thinking how to do that."

The ADB, funded by Sport England and the Environment Agency, has a team of regional officers working with angling clubs and schools, and this year will set up 80 new fishing programmes, with more in the pipeline. Events during National Fishing Month, which runs until August 15, aim to promote the sport to families.

Angling clubs in the past have not been good at engaging with schools, says Jackie Sheldon, ADB senior development manager, but links are vital if children's experience of fishing is to be more than just a one-off.

The ADB is encouraging more club members to gain coaching qualifications and earn money for their clubs by putting on courses for schools. Some schools are already setting up their own clubs after a successful course, and more young people are keen to join their local angling clubs as these become more responsive to the needs of junior members.

Some anglers will prefer a quiet, non-competitive approach, but for those with the urge to compete the ADB promotes opportunities to take part in angling contests from local through to national and international levels.

Richard Hadley, ADB regional officer for the West Midlands, emphasises that there is a lot of skill in angling - from bait presentation to knowing where to fish and how to attract fish, how to strike and how to "play" the fish on the end of your line.

"It's not difficult to get started, but improving your angling is quite a steep learning curve," he says.

At Alvechurch, Tom has already progressed from using a simple elasticated "whip" to trying a fishing rod with a reel. "This is better than computers," he says. "When you're playing computers, you're stuck there doing the same thing over and over again. This gives you variety - what you catch, what bait you use. And it's better to be outside - especially in a place like this."


National Fishing Month:

Angling Development Board:

Get Hooked on Fishing:

Substance research:

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