Why we're not champions any more

Schools are producing dwindling numbers of top athletes. Primaries lack qualified PE teachers, then there's the little problem that many of today's children just hate games.
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It seems we're not very good at anything much these days - millennium domes, pedestrian bridges, and sport in particular. This summer has been a bit of a wash-out, and not just in terms of the weather. We've groaned through England's poor performance in Euro 2000, and cringed when Britain was relegated from the World Group of the Davis Cup in tennis. Only the success of our cricketers has raised the gloom.

It seems we're not very good at anything much these days - millennium domes, pedestrian bridges, and sport in particular. This summer has been a bit of a wash-out, and not just in terms of the weather. We've groaned through England's poor performance in Euro 2000, and cringed when Britain was relegated from the World Group of the Davis Cup in tennis. Only the success of our cricketers has raised the gloom.

But with the Olympic Games almost upon us, can we honestly expect to see Britain high up in the medal tables? It's not likely is it? What has gone wrong? Why do we no longer get an opportunity to wave our hands over our heads and sing "We are the champions!"

Part of the problem is that the number of athletes emerging through the educational system has dwindled alarmingly, with all the sports fighting over an ever-reducing number of talented youngsters, says Trevor Brooking, Sport England chairman and ex-England footballer. "The biggest problem is with technical skills. In primary school, the level of technical input, such as how to catch, throw or kick a ball is very low; instead, there's lots of running around with bean bags.

"Any secondary PE teacher will tell you that the first couple of years are spent developing basic skills that used to be in place when kids arrived. The trouble is you can't turn back the clock. You've lost them by age 11. Either they have never had a chance to have a go or they're simply not interested."

Most primary schools do not have a qualified PE teacher on the staff, and curriculum demands mean that, according to a recent Sport England survey, over a third of six- to eight-year-olds now do less than a hour of PE a week. Another survey found that one in 20 primary schools actually break the law by failing to teach children to swim. Ironically, curriculum requirements can backfire on more precocious children, says Brooking: "I know of one child who arrived at school already able to swim the required 25m. So she was never encouraged to swim at school because she'd already met the criteria."

Getting kids up to speed is not the only problem faced by secondary PE teachers. Many school teams are run by teachers of other subjects, who are shedding extra commitments in the face of increasing pressure on their time and energy. And children themselves are less keen to exert themselves; the Sport England survey of 3,300 pupils aged five to 16, found that many hate playing games because it means getting wet, sweaty or dirty, or risking injury.

Brooking believes we're also in danger of producing a generation that is quite good at most things and very good at none: "In some schools, you do two to three different sports each term. They cover so many that they can't get their teeth into one in particular."

It is a point that rings true with Steve Grainger, the managing director of the Youth Sport Trust, who thinks we have sacrificed success at the top for having some of the world's best opportunities to participate in terms of the number of sports on offer and access to them in schools.

"Many other countries have a much tighter focus on a small number of sports - that's exactly why they are doing well. The reason Swedes are so good at tennis, badminton and golf is that they don't play rugby, cricket or football. Australia also does well because it focuses on a small number of sports and has brought in high-level coaches to work with a small number of performers."

Others argue that the media obsession with soccer is wasting talent. "It captures boys' imaginations and that's all they want to play," says John Matthews, PE teacher and chief executive of the UK Physical Education Association, who reduced soccer time at his school because children can play it elsewhere. "If you're a 12-year-old boy, big for your age, fairly quick and well co-ordinated, you could be good at any sport you choose, but chances are you'll get sucked into soccer, and only at 18 or 19 find out you're not that good. Only one in 1,000 makes it as a professional footballer; it's a waste of talent because they haven't developed other skills."

So what should we do? Success at the top, believes Grainger, hinges on access to specialised facilities, coaches, competitions, and a good training regime, and that simply can't be provided in a wide range of sports. "We need to look carefully at which sports we invest in, then establish the right structures for those. At the moment, for instance, there are big pieces missing in terms of talent development in some areas. We lose a lot of people as they move from schools through the club, district and county levels before reaching the national squads."

Brooking also wants to see sport given more status within the school curriculum. Although the Government recently doubled sports funding from £52m to £102m, it's not enough, he believes. Many schools lack decent indoor facilities, for instance. "And who likes going out in a gale-force icy wind?"

The good news is that there are many initiatives underway. Much of the government cash will go towards establishing over 1,000 school sports co-ordinators, with the aim of increasing numbers of young people doing extra-curricular sport by 20 per cent. The co-ordinators will be based in selected secondary schools, particularly in socially or economically deprived areas, and will bolster after-school activities, promote links with clubs, and work with PE teachers to supplement curricular work.

Indeed, conquering élitism in sports like tennis and cricket should be top of the agenda, says Brooking, who believes we've lost a number of Olympic champions over the last decade. Whereas 20 or 30 years ago, most sporting talent came from the working classes, now each time the Olympics comes round, a growing percentage comes from the higher economic groups. "We're really narrowing our opportunities to get talent."

Many schools are also trying to make difficult sports more accessible. Short tennis, which uses light rackets and soft balls, makes it easier to get the ball back over the net, while quick cricket uses simplified rules and a shorter game. PE teachers are very careful these days to manufacture situations where children aren't constantly beaten, says Matthews: "We try to organise lessons so that the weaker children play against each other. A good PE programme will make sure all children are included."

But what about the children who show exceptional talent? Most sports governing bodies are strengthening links between schools and local clubs, so that promising youngsters get extra-curricular opportunities to train, receive coaching and enter competitions.

The Football Association, for instance, has recognised that there is not enough time in the curriculum to give young footballers all the time and skills they need. "While schools were the traditional breeding ground for players in a whole range of sports, we foresaw the demise some time ago," says Les Read, the director of technical development. "School is probably no longer the first experience kids have of football, and definitely no longer the place where élite players continue to develop."

But schools still have a vital role in instilling the basics, he believes, hence the FA's Top Sport Football scheme that provides equipment, training and activity cards to primary teachers and an initiative to have 250,000 children playing mini-soccer every week.

"We want to get kids early, but based on a structure with an emphasis on developing skills and techniques, and a passion for the game," says Read. "If you focus on leagues and competitive soccer, you start pushing kids who are physically not able to participate in an adult game - they can't play on a full-size pitch, they can't kick a ball far enough, they can't play for 90 minutes - with the result that all but the very big and strong get poor feedback and a bad experience. You end up turning off gifted kids because they weren't big enough."

Indeed, despite the example of the Williams sisters, many believe hothousing is not the answer to producing champions. "There is nothing worse than hothousing a five-year-old, who then finds at 10 or 11 that they're not really up to scratch," says Grainger. "Obviously, some people show early promise, but you shouldn't hothouse that potential at an early age. What you don't see with the Eastern European model is the huge scrap heap of kids that didn't make it."

Others worry that children aren't motivated enough. Competition should be at the heart of sport, insists Roger Draper, director of development at the Lawn Tennis Association, which is aiming to get a much higher priority for competition within schools. "It has become a bit of a dirty word, but if you look at successful nations, they are all very competitive. Sport is ultimately about winners or losers."

What seems certain is there will be no quick fix. "It's a bit like turning a supertanker around," says Draper, who has helped establish 500 club-school tennis links. "It takes time. School sport has been in decline over the last 10 years and has got to become top of the agenda again. But it's not just about producing champions - it's also about getting more people to enjoy themselves and lead a healthier life."