Tony Diprose: career timeline
● 1991–1994: Loughborough University – PE, sports science and recreation management honours degree
● June 1997–July 1997: British & Irish Lions – international rugby player
● June 1997–June 1999: Rugby Football Union – international rugby player
● July 1991–June 2001: Saracens RFC – rugby player
● 2001–2006: Harlequin FC – rugby player
● July 2006–June 2019: Harlequin FC – various academy manager roles
● January 2020: Canford School – director of sport and physical wellbeing
I’m familiar with the job title ‘director of sport’, but I haven’t seen ‘physical wellbeing’ added all that often. Does this represent a change in the role?
Why I perceive it to be director of sport and physical wellbeing is because we’re trying to bring everything together so that you don’t have a lot of disparate areas across the school. We’re not exactly where we want to be yet, but we’re working our way towards it.
There were a lot of really good wellbeing initiatives already going on at Canford way before the job title was changed, but what we’re trying to do is get some direction of travel on it. That can be in a number of different areas; from my side, it’s the ones pertaining to physical activity – health, exercise, diet, nutrition. You could talk about mental and physical wellbeing separately, but the two are so aligned. What we want is the pupils at the school being as well looked after as we can.
Do you think more schools in the sector are embracing a wider focus on sport and wellbeing, instead of just sport?
I think there has always been a focus on wellbeing. I’ve come into this job from a slightly different area – professional sport – which I think helps to drive the idea that you’ve got to look after the whole person; it’s not just about winning and losing. But I think that’s always been the case in schools.
We’re really happy if our first 11 hockey win and go to national finals, of course, but that’s not what school sport is about. It’s about providing opportunities for pupils to enjoy sport, to be physically active, to be challenged and to gain some of the life skills that they will need further on in life.
What is the balance like between encouraging participation and high performance in school sport at the moment?
Do I think schools are still very competitive and want to be the best they can? Of course. But I think from a school perspective, participation has to be the number one element. Although what I would hope is that here at Canford we also have the ability to support those who want to be elite sportspeople or want to be the best they can be.
You’re trying to get that breadth of programme, for the girl who wants to play netball just because she enjoys it, to the girl who is on the Bath academy netball programme and watches the Superleague. We have to make both experiences as good as they can be in terms of staffing, facilities and logistics.
Having staff that can work across both of those areas – with the ability to generate the interest and participation levels, but also have the skill set to help someone who is looking at it as a potential career pathway – can be a challenge.
You joined Canford in January last year and were expecting to begin an introductory phase until actively overseeing the sports programme in September. How did Covid-19 affect this?
It’s definitely been challenging. The first couple of months were very much a ‘finding out’ phase for me; getting to know people, getting to understand the systems and structures of what we do currently, and thinking about what we want to change. Then the shadow of Covid came over us at the end of our Easter term and that suddenly changed our plans.
However, what was great was that there was a real collective buy-in from schools across the country to help each other. There was really good collaboration between schools in their local areas and outside their local areas.
But we managed to get through that summer, and I think the programme went quite well; most of it was very remote. In lockdown three we had more time to plan and organise, but the weather definitely made it more of a challenge to encourage people to get outside.
Having assessed Canford’s sports and physical wellbeing programme, can you share any insights into changes you want to make?
Covid has had an effect on that because you have to focus more on the here and now, instead of three or five years down the line. But we’ve been trying to put in place a strategy, including a vision of where we want to get to.
We’ve been thinking about what we want pupils to get out of the sports programme and for us, it’s about developing the life skills that we think pupils will need, no matter what they go on to. Sport for me is a fantastic vehicle to help prepare them.
I look back at some of the skills that I’ve learned from my time, both in professional and amateur sport, and see how skills like communication, perseverance, resilience, working as a team, decision-making and performance can all be learned through sport. And we do those on a daily basis at Canford. Maybe what we need to do is articulate them better, so that pupils understand that there are really good reasons why we’re doing the things we’re doing.
We’re really keen to get back to playing competitive fixtures, but I think [Covid] has shown that it is not the be-all and end-all. Those fixtures are there so that we can challenge the pupils, and also help them understand what it’s like to lose and how you react to that, which is an important life lesson. But do we really need to play a whole block of rugby fixtures for every age group, the first weekend back in September, every year? We’ve got to get that balance right.
We’re also looking at how we can improve our girls’ cricket programme at the moment. It’s driving forward massively so we want to make sure that we’re at the forefront of that, not lagging behind and worrying about it in five years’ time.
What is your favourite part of the job?
I love that the job and the sports within it are so varied. Probably my best memories so far are when the weather has been nice and I’ve wandered around campus, seeing the rowers on the river, the lacrosse players on the main lawn, the netballers in the courts – there’s just this incredible array of different things going on. When you see all of that coming together, and a load of smiling, laughing and chatting, that’s what you do the job for.
What is the most challenging part of the job?
Emails! I think, like anything, it’s just trying to balance things. There are so many people involved in a school in different areas, like academic and pastoral, and, at times, that can be bewildering. But all you can do is communicate with each other as best you can. It’s about the relationships you build with people and how you deal with any challenges that come up.
Does being an ex-athlete make it easier or harder to be a director of sport and physical wellbeing?
I think your experiences shape what you’re about as a person. I will have changed hugely from being a professional player, to starting on a coaching managerial career within Harlequins, to where I am now. I also have a six-year-old daughter and that definitely shapes your behaviour.
I know quite a few directors of sport in independent schools from my background and it means that if I’ve got an issue, there are people that I can rely on and talk things through with. Chris Dossett, who is currently director of sport at Uppingham School, was my first team captain when I was at Loughborough.
How do you feel about joining the education sector after playing professionally and having different coaching and management roles?
When I finished my playing career, I looked at going into education and I had a role at a school potentially lined up, but then I was invited to get involved with Harlequins’ Academy. I thought it was a good opportunity, so I chose that pathway, and stayed there for the next 13 years. But it was always in my mind that education was something I was interested in. When I’m talking to other directors of sport, I’m fully aware that some of them have been doing it for 10–15 years, so I try and garner ideas from them.
How are you feeling about schools reopening and what are your immediate plans for sport?
I’m excited for the pupils, they’re all looking forward to coming back and seeing their friends. In the sports department we’ve talked about fun and that’s what this term is about, although there will be some competitive stuff too. But we’ve got make sure we don’t overdo it. Yes, some pupils have been really active during lockdown, but some pupils may not have been as active as they usually would be when they’re in school. We’ve got to be conscious of that.
Behind the scenes we’ll be putting plans in place for the summer, and for me it’ll be a learning curve because I haven’t seen the summer term at Canford yet. I think everyone hopes that later this summer we’ll be back to something like normality.
We’re hoping to get back to some cricket fixtures, hockey and tennis, but we’re aware that there will probably be regulations that we’re going to have to work with. It would be nice if we are closer to what you would call ‘normal’ by September so that we can really hit the ground running then.
Canford School: five sporting facts
1. 115 teams fielded across 30 different sports
2. Success at county, regional and national levels
3. It is one of only two schools in the country to have an original real tennis court
4. It has a nine-hole golf course on-site
5. Rowing is popular, competing at Henley and occasionally for GB