On your marks

16th March 2007 at 00:00
The race is on to train our young Olympic hopefuls for 2012. But ensuring that the demands of sport don't damage their studies involves a delicate balancing act for teachers and pupils, discovers Stephen Manning

It's five years, four months and 11 days until the start of the London Olympics in 2012. Time to grow a few medal-winners? Not really. All the athletes who could compete in five years' time have been identified in each of the 26 sports. Some will already have competed in the UK School Games held last September in Glasgow. Some may not stay the course, but they all share a fervent desire to be Olympians. And some of them are still at school.

Finding a balance between school and Olympic-level athletics can be daunting, says James English, PE teacher at The Coopers' Company and Coborn School, a specialist sports college in Upminster, Essex. As mentor co-ordinator, he has been involved with some very promising pupils and knows the responsibility that carries.

"We call it the Team You - parents, teachers, coaches are all on the team to make you, the young athlete, the best you can be," he says. "But some teachers don't understand the pressure the pupil is under. Equally, coaches don't always appreciate the demands of the school, so part of my role is to explain things to these various parties on behalf of the pupil."

Coopers' has a number of promising athletes earmarked for a great, possibly Olympian, future, such as Rebecca Carson, 17, Britain's national under-18s fencing champion. She won the Commonwealth team event for Scotland at last year's Commonwealth Games and is one of 10 teenage fencers on the Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme, ranking only behind the "podium of four" female fencers who are expected to medal at the London Games. But they are in their twenties now - it's the younger ones such as Rebecca who will peak in ability around 2012.

She has to work hard to balance her commitments to her school and her sport. "In an average month I'll have two competitions, mainly at weekends," she says. "But the school will be flexible if there is something major."

Last April, just before her GCSEs, she needed a week to prepare for the World Junior Championships in South Korea. "I left revision for when I got back," she says. "I concentrated on training from January to April. Then, as soon as it was over I was back to revising - I was doing it on the plane home." And she didn't do badly: 11 passes, with two A*s and two As.

Rebecca is not the only talented athlete at her school: it boasts a number of other potential Olympians, such as 13-year-old Nicole Raymond, part of the school team that won the National Schools Cross-Country Championship.

She hopes to compete in the triathlon. Her studies have not suffered: she is top of her year academically.

But the demands on elite athletes are great. To help them, the Youth Sport Trust has developed the Junior Athlete Education (JAE) programme, a Gifted and Talented mentoring scheme to provide all-round "lifestyle management"

support in specialist sports colleges. "We break the mentoring down into four areas," says Guin Batten, head of performance at the Youth Sport Trust. "Firstly, having a dream; secondly, having the talent; thirdly, development of that talent and an understanding of the sport; and finally, creating an appropriate lifestyle."

Guin was part of the women's quad scull rowing team that took the silver at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Britain's first female Olympic medal. She knows all about the long gestation of such a dream. "When I was 12, I knew I wanted to go to the Olympics," she says. "But I didn't find my sport until I was 19."

The JAE programme is an adapted version of the British Olympic Association's Planning for Success course and was developed as part of the Government's PE, School Sport and Club Links (PESSCL) strategy. Some 340 of the 422 sports colleges in the UK have implemented this type of men toring, but how it is done is up to each school.

"The mentor is like the go-between between the pupil and the conflicting demands upon them, from the teacher, the parent, the coach," says James. At Coopers', 34 of the school's Year 7-11 pupils receive mentoring (there are 1,300 at the school).

He holds a weekly 10-minute meeting with his three mentees to discuss how training is going and if school work is affected. At the start of the year the pupils are likely to have a list of competition and training dates, so a lot of planning is done in advance.

A select few receive more intensive mentoring. Two of the great hopes in sailing are Frances Peters, 15, and her brother James, 14. They were among 100 of the country's best athletes aged 14 to 17 who attended the first National Talent Orientation Camp in January, managed by the Youth Sport Trust and funded by the Department for Education and Skills. The pupils were coached by Olympic champions and sports stars such as Dame Kelly Holmes. They were selected by the national governing bodies in five sports: rowing, sailing, cycling, triathlon and canoeing.

"It gave us an insight into the decisions we'd have to make about our priorities," says Frances. "So we want to be Olympians? How much do we really want it? This is what 'wanting it' means. Although you shouldn't give up education, you have to be aware of the demands and you need to be able to prioritise."

The four-day camp was intense. "We got up at 6.30am and went to the gym for an hour of circuit training or aerobics - hard on the first day, but it's a good habit to get into. It's good to see other young athletes in different sports sharing a similar vision."

Frances is a pupil at Thornden School in Chandlers Ford, Hampshire, and will take her GCSEs this year. "I have to get all my school work done in the week so I can sail at the weekend," she says. "But the school has been helpful, letting me go to international events and sometimes giving me flexible deadlines."

But what of the coaches, the officials and those off the field? About 70,000 volunteers will be needed when the games finally arrive, but some are anxious to stake their place early.

Ruby Smyth, a sixth-former at Thornleigh Salesian College, Bolton, is on the Step Into Sport scheme, part of the National School Sport Strategy which gets 14 to 19-year-olds involved in leadership and volunteering. Last April, 700 participants attended a four-day training camp in Loughborough.

Ruby, who has a netball coaching qualification, was one of only 40 selected to attend the UK School Games, where she gained valuable experience.

"We got to be involved in everything from event management, crowd control, right down to putting out equipment," she says. "Even if you're not competing, it's great to be part of the whole spirit."

Much of the focus is on the London Games, but perhaps the most important part is to use 2012 to inspire the next generation who may be involved in 2016 and beyond. The Young Ambassadors programme, launched in 2006, sees talented 16 and 17-year-olds go into primary schools to talk about the Olympic ideals - not just about athletics but also health and cultural matters including fair play, cultural understanding and personal excellence.

Four hundred school-sport partnerships each nominated two young people, one as a Gifted and Talented athlete, one as a "sports leader". Coopers'

Company and Coborn School's ambassadors are sixth-formers Jessica Bryan, who plays hockey at national level, and Ben Gricks.

"In the Olympic village everyone will get a better understanding of how different cultures co-exist," says Ben. "So we start with an assembly on cultural understanding and how it benefits everybody. We tell the younger kids that the way to educate others is to be truthful about yourself, so you can give others a view of what your lifestyle is like."

Britain's stated aim, as expressed by the British Olympic Association, is to come fourth in the medal table (behind the United States, Russia and China). Whether or not that's realistic is probably beside the point.

Nothing in recent - or indeed ancient - memory has captured the spirit of so many youngsters and their teachers as the build-up to the London Games FIND OUT MORE

More information on these programmes is available from the Youth Sport Trust:


On Your Marks is the first educational resource to be launched in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. The website features information and teaching tips aimed not just at PE lessons; for example, how to create an environmentally friendly stadium or plan an Olympic torch route.


Elite Mentor is a website set up by Olympic medallists, including Linford Christie, offering mentoring advice to young athletes. It includes a section on school sports.


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