‘Travel broadens the mind’ is one of the English language’s most well-worn phrases. And, when it comes to school sports tours and competing overseas, the benefits of experiences in other lands are certainly as pronounced as anywhere else. International trips and tours can fast-track young people’s awareness of the world beyond their own nation and help to produce a truly global mindset – and the UK’s independent schools are now harnessing the opportunities of foreign travel as never before.
North Wales’ Rydal Penrhos School takes its sport very seriously – and internationally, as last seen in the feats of alumnus Vicky Thornley, who joined Britain’s most decorated female Olympian Katherine Grainger for a silver medal in the Rio Olympics’ double sculls rowing event.
And the next big event in the school sporting calendar is this autumn’s brace of high-profile sports tours. The school’s running two separate tours for its netball and rugby stars, which will see them experience European competition in Greece and Portugal respectively. Sixteen netballers will depart for Greece on October 19 and will be joined by Welsh netball captain and former pupil Suzy Drane, who will be part of the coaching staff during the trip. The tour party will be staying at the Loutraki Sportcamp near Athens, where they will be training and playing competitive matches against various teams from the region.
The rugby team will depart for Portugal on the same date on a tour programmed, like the netball trip, by MSG Tours, and will be competing against a number of sides throughout their visit. Director of Sport Allen Boyd says: “Sports tours at any point of the season provide an excellent opportunity to help teams fulfil their potential. The time – both on and off the field – that the group spends together while away brings them together as a group and undoubtedly helps staff to get to know their pupils better too.
“Team development aside, these tours also allow pupils to experience places they may otherwise not get to, and this is one of the things I look for in putting tours together. I like to offer pupils the slightly more obscure locations that they are unlikely to visit on a family holiday – or those countries who are not as developed within specific sports.”
Unfortunately, says Mr Boyd, the efforts involved in putting them together mean that sports tours are often becoming less of a fixture. “Many schools now no longer provide annual or biannual tours, which is a great shame. They are often among pupils’ most memorable experiences, and when I bump into Old Boys or Old Girls these tours are very often one of the memories they recall most happily. The sporting development is the main driving factor – but the various accompanying benefits of travel come in a very close second.
“At Rydal Penrhos we believe that every pupil should have an opportunity to go on at least one short-haul and one long-haul tour – but we are all too aware of the financial implications for families, especially where parents have siblings in the school. To assist this we offer many fundraising opportunities whereby pupils can fully fund their place through sponsorship and fundraising.”
Elsewhere, Buckswood School’s long-standing association with Chelsea Football Club saw it depart once again, earlier this year, to the Kingdom of Swaziland for its annual charity trip. Buckswood has been visiting Swaziland for the past 12 years and, as part of the annual trip, has staged a football tournament to support the local Hearts and Smiles project, which helps the local police force to integrate better with local communities.
I often have parents and former pupils telling me that the tour they went on was pivotal to them as an individual – helping them grow in confidence, explore new horizons, work as a team and discover new cultures – Audrey Sime
This year the Buckswood football programme stepped up a gear by bringing along Matthew Mooney, a coach at the Chelsea FC Foundation, for the tour. “I thought it would be an excellent opportunity for the children of Swaziland to benefit from the same level of coaching enjoyed by our pupils,” explains Buckswood’s Headmaster, Giles Sutton.
Football legend David Beckham had visited Swaziland earlier this year with the charity UNICEF, as part of his own initiative 7, which aims to help protect millions of children from danger. Buckswood wrote to Beckham ahead of the trip to tell him about the 12 years of charity work they have been doing in Swaziland – and received a letter congratulating the School and students on the work they have done in the country.
“It was wonderful to learn about Buckswood’s long-standing project in Swaziland,” said the England captain-turned-UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. “It is always brilliant for us to hear how willing young people are to help others who have so little. Your students sound like fine advocates for children’s rights around the world”.
When it comes to individual experiences of travelling and competing abroad nothing, of course, can compare to participating in the Olympic Games – as swimming ace Duncan Scott, a recent leaver from Scotland’s Strathallan School, can tell you.
Duncan competed in the 100m individual freestyle, 4 x 100m and 4 x 200m freestyle relay events at the Rio games, bagging a hugely impressive brace of silver medals in the latter two events. His former school coach Elaine Johnston, herself an international swimmer who competed for Scotland in the 1986 Commonwealth Games, kept a proud and watchful eye on his progress. Along with Duncan’s Stirling University club coach, Steven Tigg, Elaine played a pivotal role in helping the 19-year-old to prepare for the greatest sporting stage of all.
“Duncan was just 12 when he first arrived at Strathallan and, from the minute he stepped into the pool, I knew he’d go far,” Elaine remembers. “He had a natural feel for the water and was terrific on all four strokes. He was also totally committed, always looking for ways to develop and get better.”
Strathallan’s Director of Sport Audrey Sime is totally persuaded by the benefits of school sports tours. “The biggest thing, for me, is how our pupils grow as people. I often have parents and former pupils telling me that the tour they went on was pivotal to them as an individual – helping them to grow in confidence, explore new horizons, work as a team and discover new cultures. Parents often say that their child has clearly grown up when they return from one of these tours.
“Pupils may have trained with each other all year, bonded, fallen out – but when they go on tour it all comes together, they go to a different environment and they learn how to be better as themselves. It is character-building: pupils have brand new experiences, interact with different mindsets and become aware of who they are and how they fit into the world.”
One recent tour saw Strathallan’s hockey teams touring Belgium and Holland. “Pupils still tell me how transformational that tour was for them,” Audrey reveals. “They mixed with different nationalities, experienced different cultures, learnt more about themselves as individuals and grew as people. The international aspect exposes them to a much bigger picture of what the world has to offer and what they can aspire to.
“Many of our pupils play sports at elite level, be they swimmers, canoeists, hockey players, skiers or rugby players. Whatever the sport, the international exposure they gain at school expands their horizons, makes them more independent and gives them a huge amount of confidence. It also makes them aware of others and generally makes them better people.”