Winning formula: How can Britain produce Wimbledon champions?
When it comes to nurturing young tennis stars, Britain could learn a lot from the US where students spend as much time on sport as they do on learning.
Thursday 18 June 2009
Laura Robson will have little time for study as she prepares for her debut as a player in the Wimbledon women's singles next week. The heavy text books that fly around the world with the 15-year-old, who is dubbed the "new darling of British tennis", are likely to remain where they started – in her suitcase.
The exams that she is due to take next year are hardly likely to be a priority for a girl who last year rose to stardom as the first British player to win the Wimbledon girls' event since Annabel Croft in 1984. The question over the next few weeks will be why Britain cannot manage to produce more young players like her.
Part of the blame lies in this country's inflexible school system, according to Helen Crook, a former Wimbledon champion. Robson may have dropped out of school, but she has already signed sponsorship deals and is forging a career in her sport. "What about all the twenty-something young hopefuls who don't make it and have little to fall back on?" asks Crook.
"Schools in the UK give their pupils far too much academic work to do. It's over the top and unnecessary. Then there's all the fluffiness in the curriculum and attempts to instill life skills that tennis players get from the discipline of training and competing anyway," says Crook who competed at eight Wimbledon tournaments and was ranked number one for UK ladies' doubles.
Most schools have children studying 10 or even 11 GCSEs when they need five to get into university, she says. "It's crazy and actually creates an incentive for children to drop out of school and abandon academic qualifications altogether."
To help young players she has set up a Freedom School in Chingford, east London, where they combine training and studying for a reduced number of qualifications. The school charges fees but they amount to around a third of those of most independent schools.
"As a nation we are pretty poor when it comes to encouraging children into sports or the arts, yet with the 2012 Olympics just around the corner, money is being ploughed into our sporting stars. What we are still failing to do is strike that important balance between sport and education. Until we do so we will never be able to emulate the success of many other European countries and the US."
Crook, who studied at a college in the States before launching her professional career, says Britain has a lot to learn from the American system of nurturing sportsmen and women through an intensive morning of academic studies and an afternoon free to train. Since last September her school has employed tutors to teach A-levels in a room above the bar in a pub. In September it will move to new premises and expand to take GCSE students.
"We encourage 14- and 15-year-olds to take three GCSEs a year over two years instead of the usual 10 subjects. This more than meets the requirements of UK and American universities and means they are able to combine studying with training and tournaments," she says.
As with most sports, a disproportionate number of top players come from independent schools, which have better resources and more curriculum flexibility. However, even some of the most sports-friendly private schools can fail to support the most talented students. Georgina Bastick, 17, a pupil at the Freedom School, left her private school at the age of 14 to be taught at home. Though the school had agreed to reduce her workload from 11 to seven GCSEs, it expected her to devote time to represent it in tennis, rounders and netball.
"They wanted me to play in their teams when I wanted to go and play tennis. I couldn't get out of it. They make you feel guilty, as if you are letting the teams and the school down," she says. "I thought I could motivate myself to do home schooling but I found it really difficult without other people in a class and teachers to give me feedback."
Independent schools such as Queenswood, the girls' school in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, and Culford, in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, have top-class facilities plus scholarship places to reduce fees for gifted players. In the state sector, however, the approach has been half-hearted with tennis still often regarded as a fringe or elitist sport. Even specialist sports colleges have tended to spread their extra funds thinly to support more general PE lessons rather than developing special courses for the high-fliers.
It's true that schools could do a lot more, says David Johns, who has been running a scholarship scheme at Cheam High, a state comprehensive in Sutton, for 15 years. "We were approached by the Sutton tennis association and together we've found a way to integrate education and training, using a minibus to take players from school to Lea's centre of excellence two miles away," he says.
Top international players are getting younger, he says, and the scheme, which began with sixth-formers, now takes children from the age of 11. One of its participants is Lana Rush who plays for England in the under-12s team. Her parents, Matt, a PE teacher, and Caroline, the joint chief executive of the British Fashion Council, have organised their lives and careers around their daughter's tennis training.
Lana started at a private school in Cheshire and then went to a tennis academy in Barcelona with her father while her mother flew out at weekends. "In terms of family life, it wasn't ideal. We did it for a year but didn't think the coaching was appropriate so we returned to London. Through Lana's coach we heard about the scheme for tennis players at Cheam," says Martin Rush.
"We didn't want Lana to do distance learning because we wanted to keep her in a relatively normal school environment for as long as possible. It's important she interacts socially with her peers. If schools would enter into the same sort of relationships with all the Lawn Tennis Association's high-performance centres around the country, it would mean children and families wouldn't have to uproot themselves."
Mike Sacchi, the father of Jamie, 17, another Cheam pupil, says the lack of support has made tennis a middle- and upper-class sport. "Things are improving and places like Sutton are making it easier, but we are not there yet," he says. "Children from Cornwall and the North of England are at Cheam because they have nothing like it where they live. It is to this country's shame that young players cannot develop as high-ranking tennis players without sacrificing their studies and without parents who can afford to support them.
"Tim Henman is from a well-to-do family, Greg Rusedski came up through the Canadian system and Andy Murray's mother was a very good player and an LTA coach. Everyone else has to struggle like mad and that is why we don't produce the players that France, Russia and America do."
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