To the next level

As a new sporting year begins, Tom Herbert examines the trends, techniques and technologies driving up sporting standards in our schools

In days gone by, preparing for school sport after the summer break might have meant packing away your grass-stained cricket whites, chiselling last season’s dried mud from your boots and desperately hoping your PE kit still fits. Now, however, students are more likely to be completing their bespoke summer fitness programme, checking their latest personalised video analysis or emailing their Director of Sport about conditioning training.

While 2014 may have been a year of mixed fortunes for Britain’s professional footballers, cricketers and rugby players, the success of this year’s Commonwealth Games and the continued legacy of participation from the London Olympics means that for both staff and students, school sport has never been higher on the agenda.

Millfield School’s Director of Sport, former Olympic gold medallist and England Hockey performance director David Faulkner, believes that the London Games have given sport a significant new profile across the British Isles – and that this has translated directly into more interest from students. “All this activity is filtered back in at school level,” David explains.

“The role of the London Games in inspiring the next generation of UK elite athletes is unlikely to become clear until the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 – but at grassroots level participation numbers have increased, which can only be positive for school sport. Sport is so important, and it’s up to schools to put the processes in place to ensure that pupils get the best possible experience of it.”

One area of continuing growth for independent schools has been in girls’ sport, where the independent sector is bucking the national trend of falling participation numbers among young women. An example of this can be found at The Royal High School Bath, which this term is launching a new initiative to promote sport for girls, in terms of both participation and excellence.

“It’s not just a question of physical fitness: sport plays an important role in developing confidence, resilience and leadership,” outlines school Head Rebecca Dougall. “It helps girls and young woman to become less conscious of how they are seen and more focused on achieving a goal, either individually or as part of a team.”

Sara Whittaker, Director of PE and Games at Farlington School in West Sussex, agrees. “We believe that sport has a positive impact on the girls’ academic and personal lives in terms of self-confidence, health and team-building. It feeds into the girls’ lives, improving their social and personal skills as well as providing a great way to bring the wider school community together for competitive matches and sporting events.”

Rhys Gwilliam, Director of Sport at Prior Park College, Bath and a former Director of Sport at Dean Close School in Cheltenham, believes that the philosophy of school sport has also evolved. “Kids are no longer just a commodity: schools really try to look after them. If students are injured it not only affects their sporting performance – we’ve also noticed that it affects them academically, and as a result we have made physio support more widely available.”

There has also been a noticeable change in training techniques over the past few years, with many department heads and Directors of Sport seeing a shift in coaching towards the individual. One-to-one coaching sessions with trainers are now more common – in rugby, for example, prop forwards and goal kickers require such different skills that it makes sense, if the resources are available, to coach some of the positions separately.

In many schools around Britain, sports coaching has also evolved from the traditional model. Although the majority of schools still have a head of department who is a qualified PE teacher, schools are increasingly recruiting their Directors of Sport from an elite sporting background. Examples include Paul Hull, who in 2011 moved from coaching Bristol Rugby in the English Championship to work at Dean Close as Director of Rugby, while more recently Haileybury School in Hertfordshire announced the appointment of South African international Dirkie Chamberlain and England midfielder Susannah Townsend, both of whom starred at the recent Hockey World Cup, as professional hockey coaches.

There is an increasing belief that coaches from an elite sporting background can help not only by training students to the next level of performance, but also by looking at things from a sports science and sports medicine point of view – and assessing and upgrading facilities at their schools according to these needs.

Fitness is another key battleground in the race for improvement. Over the summer break many schools will have given their students personal fitness programmes to work on, and during the season it is common for students to receive at least one conditioning session a week. “Strength and conditioning are massive now,” Prior Park’s Rhys Gwilliam points out. “Conditioning in particular has become ever more important, especially in rugby where collisions have become heavier and the players need the muscle to prevent serious injury.”

The quality of technology available is also playing a part in advancing the value of coaching sessions.

David Faulkner at Millfield believes that “new technology has become increasingly significant, and will become even more so in the future”. The Somerset school has recently introduced a fully integrated system to analyse performance across a range of school sports, and recruited a dedicated performance analysis leader to examine the data generated by the system.

Once the match or training data has been processed and analysed by the coach, it is then placed on the ‘Team Performance Exchange’ platform, where footage and data of individual and team performances can be shared and accessed by pupils. As Faulkner points out, “the system ties in with the school’s wider mobile learning policy. Every pupil has a tablet and the system makes use of this and the way the school has gone digital.” Technology has also helped to raise the profile of school sport, moving it away from newsletters and scoreboards and into a more interactive era, with social media and school websites providing up-to-the-minute information on fixtures, results and performances.

So as students up and down the country prepare for their winter sport programme, whether or not they can find that missing lacrosse stick or remember the intricacies of the new scrum rules, it is likelier than ever before that advances in coaching, facilities and technology will give them the chance to fulfil their potential.

Picture credit: Rodrigo Jaramillo