Sports coaching can wait, give kids freedom to play

20th September 2013 at 01:00

Roger Federer has an unsurpassed gift for tennis, sports pundits often tell us. But does he really? There may be Mongolian nomads or tribesmen in Papua New Guinea who have never seen a racket but possess a more natural aptitude. There may even be some children in Scotland.

A few years ago, TESS visited a school in Glasgow's East End where an artificial sports pitch had been installed. The headteacher had asked the school's 209 children which sports star they wanted to perform the official opening. She expected at least a few footballers to be mentioned but the response was unanimous: Andy Murray.

As far as the head was aware, not one of those children had ever played tennis - there wasn't a court for miles and many came from families with no car or money to buy the necessary equipment. It was a small tragedy: Murray's exploits had sparked an unexpected passion for tennis in these children, but there was little chance that any of them would get the chance to step on to a court.

Perhaps they would be disappointed anyway. Some youth sports coaching leaves much to be desired. TESS recently witnessed a session at a tennis club where four-year-olds shivered in a queue for several minutes to hit one ball. It seemed almost designed to snuff out any flickering interest in sport.

The Active Play trial project (see page 12), which has been running in the East End of Glasgow since December, could scarcely be more different. Here, in some of Scotland's poorest communities, "play rangers" organised by the charity Possibilities for East End Kids (PEEK) encourage children to take up sport in a way that seems counter-intuitive: the children do no sport.

Instead, the rangers are there to let children do what comes naturally. They climb, scramble around, dash hither and thither, invent fantastical scenarios and make up their own games. In short, they do pretty much whatever they want. No rules, no drills, no queues.

The children's natural urge to play, so often suppressed by modern life, is given an outlet. And it is only after the first few sessions, when the thrill of physical activity has gained momentum, that they are offered the chance to try athletics, basketball or tennis. But if they prefer to carry on playing, that's fine too.

Scotland's sport-obsessed media machine constantly agonises about ineptitude at professional level: about why our football team doesn't qualify for tournaments, why so few of our rugby players make it on to Lions tours and whether Murray is destined to be a one-off. And the debate always comes back to the shortcomings of youth coaching. Are there enough coaches? Are we doing the right type of coaching? Is coaching reaching the right children?

Perhaps the debate needs a different starting point. The message from the East End of Glasgow seems clear: forget about coaching, start with play.

henry.hepburn@tess.co.uk.

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