How to inspire excellence in sport

It is estimated that a third of Britain’s medallists since 2000 went to independent schools despite them only educating 7% of the UK’s pupils. Val Proctor looks at the facilities and practices encouraging this trend

Most independent schools are lucky enough to have superior facilities with much more space and are also generally able to attract the best coaches, often ex-national players. These coaches are passionate, highly qualified and are implementing innovative ideas to inspire more boys and girls to get out and get active, particularly in mainstream sports such as rugby, cricket, netball and hockey.

Extensive grounds enable schools like Orwell Park Prep School, Kingswood School in Bath, Brighton College and Malvern College (which supplied the images for this feature) to offer pupils facilities such as multi-use games areas, cricket nets, floodlit AstroTurf and swimming pools as well as netball and tennis courts.

“Sport is for all at Orwell Park,” explains Headmaster Adrian Brown, himself an ex-county cricketer. “Our pupils love it and every child has the opportunity to represent the school in every sport.

Our floodlit facilities, in particular, mean that winter fixtures can continue beyond dark, which gives us more time for sport.”

Orwell Park is not the only school with the philosophy of ‘sport for all’. Kingswood School makes it quite clear that all boys and girls take part, meaning they can put out multiple teams and offer more opportunities. The games and PE department has six full-time staff led by a director of sport as well as Digby Webb, athletic development co-ordinator. He has played rugby to a high standard and is currently studying towards his master’s degree in performance coaching.

Brighton College goes a step further, boasting anywhere between 85 and 100 staff (many are non-specialist), depending on the sport on offer in a particular term. The range on offer is impressive – rugby, football, cricket, hockey, netball, tennis, athletics, squash, swimming, cross country and fencing. However, Director of Sport Michael Davidson emphasises that, if a pupil arrives at the school with a particular sports specialism that is not already catered for, they will always stretch themselves to meet their requests.

Malvern College in Worcestershire has 16 full-time sports staff, who oversee teams in mainstream sports such as hockey, rugby, football (boys and girls), netball, tennis, cricket (boys and girls), athletics and golf. Director of Sport Chey Hooper-West says performance analysis, small group sessions, one-to-one coaching sessions and guest coaches who provide a different voice for the pupils are a regular part of the strategy, as is strength and conditioning.

Everyone has different motivations so we are always looking for opportunities that allow pupils to achieve whatever aims they set themselves

Schedule it in

The age at which children should start to play sport is not cast in stone. As a prep school, Orwell Park introduces PE lessons from nursery age, while hockey and tennis are available as extra-curricular activities to pupils in Years 1 and 2. The school has changed its timetable for Years 3 and 4 to accommodate sports lessons an hour earlier in the day. This, explains Brown, means that instead of having the same sessions as Years 5–8, younger pupils have the chance to use the same facilities and have access to the best coaches. “Changing the strategy in this way gives the younger children the same opportunities as the older ones,” he says.

Pupils have the expertise of ex-South African hockey player, Ian Haley, to draw on as well as Suffolk cricket captain Adam Mansfield. There are one-to-one sessions for cricket and hockey, and there are now up to 70 boys and girls attending one-to-one cricket sessions throughout the winter.

Using specialist and international coaches is a common theme among independent schools. Malvern College even taps into the expertise of international coaches, particularly professionals from Germany and Holland to find out what the latest thinking is for hockey coaching. ‘White board planning’ has proved successful – Hooper-West leads a small group of coaching staff to plan out a few weeks of training, deciding on themes they want to build on, then planning a drill to see how many different ways they can progress it.

At Brighton College, sport is part of the curriculum, so 100% of the pupils participate. Even outside the timetable, many pupils will play some sport on a Saturday as part of the fixtures, widening participation and enabling anyone who is interested in a sport, no matter at what level, to get involved.

It is normal for them to bring in external coaches for games sessions – people who can bring their own expertise to the pupils’ performances. Scotland and Sussex cricketer Matt Machan, an Old Brightonian, is a regular, as is Irish rugby star, Kieron Dawson and English shot putter Judy Oaks, while Director of Cricket Mike Smethurst played for Lancashire before turning to teaching.

Brown believes sport and pastoral care are intrinsically linked. “We see sport as part of educating the whole person and link it with our school values,” he says. Orwell Park is also leading the way in ensuring equality of opportunity in sport, with all girls and boys now playing cricket as the main summer sport. “There are up to 11 pitches being used on a match day and it is wonderful to see boys and girls enjoying the game. In addition, every pupil in the prep had the chance to play in at least six fixtures this term.”

Brighton College also ensure they don’t limit the barriers to participation and are eager to make all sport available to both sexes. Like Orwell Park, there is a strong tradition of women’s cricket (just as they have keen male dancers) and encourage girls by having two additional full-time female members of staff to act as role models.

Webb agrees that pastoral care and sport are fundamentally linked. “Sport provides a good platform in which to get to know the pupils informally and it gives staff the chance to notice any issues children may be having. Sport makes you a well-rounded person,” he continues.

An integral part of Webb’s role is to introduce physical activity and wellbeing that are supportive of sport, for example age-appropriate strength and conditioning, movement skills, physical literacy, resistance training and yoga. Webb has borrowed a coaching methodology from England Rugby known as CARDS, an acronym for creativity, awareness, resistance, decision-making and self-organisation.

“It’s based on teaching the skills to come up with different solutions to the same problem so we are using sport as an agent to develop the people we send out into the wider world and encouraging them to think for themselves.”

Our approach of wide participation feeds into our school sports strategy – we are trying to engender a love of sport and fitness that lasts long after pupils have left school

Fun and games

Brighton College is known as an innovator and this extends to sport, even the way in which the pupils practise their skills. Instead of focusing on drills, which Davidson says the pupils were less enthused by, they are encouraged to engage in a competitive environment using conditioned games. “They see that as playing and having fun rather than learning a skill,” he explains. There are also regular video analysis sessions and the teams watch their matches back and talk about their performance. Often pupils lead these sessions, overseen by the sports department.

Webb believes sport is a way to have fun with friends, to create special memories and rival social media for attention.

“The fine line is to have teams who can compete on a performance level but not at the expense of those who want to have fun.”

Davidson agrees: “Our approach of wide participation feeds into our school sports strategy – we are trying to engender a love of sport and fitness that lasts long after pupils have left school. In September 2019, a new £55m sports and science building will open, and right in the heart of the building is a space dedicated to spinning, yoga and Pilates. We offer this because we know that not all children are enthused by mainstream sports but are still interested in fitness and healthy living and we want to encourage that for the rest of their lives.”

At Malvern College, all pupils are encouraged to find something they love and enjoy. “Everyone has different motivations so we are always looking for opportunities that allow pupils to achieve whatever aims they set themselves,” says Hooper-West. Examples include improving endurance in swimming, completing the ‘Ledder’ (a traditional cross-country race of 7¾ miles) to playing for a county team, or aspiring to compete at international level. “The challenge for us is to help all of these different pupils achieve their hopes and goals,” she says.

“Helping the pupils love their sport, developing their skills and how to apply these and focus on ‘playing well’ rather than simply ‘winning’ is vital to maintaining children’s interest. We go with the idea that ‘we never lose, we either win or we learn – sometimes we do both’.

“If we focused on winning all the time, sport would no longer be fun.”

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