Monday, 14 August 2017

The British Sports Youth System is broken


The youth sports development in the UK is very, very poor in my opinion. This has baffled me for so long. Why isn't more of the vast mounds of lottery cash going to the grass roots and into the development of the youth systems for all mayor Olympic sports? This summer many of the junior national football squads have actually done surprisingly well, however this is masking the inadequacies underneath.

Let's have a look at Field Hockey as an example.

Hockey in England is played by youngsters primarily at school. It is often part of the physical education curriculum. I first realised this when i was playing hockey at my club back in the Netherlands and the clubhouse was covered by banners from touring British school teams. The problem lies in what happens to those keen, talented youngsters after they leave school. IS there enough incentive or encouragement for them to stick with the game at their local club?

On the England Hockey website it states that the lottery funding they receive from Sport England goes into growing participation and the grassroots game. If that is the case, then where are all those star hockey players? There has been a distinct lack of quality men's hockey players since the likes of Ashley Jackson.

The GB women have made it to a gold medal by sheer determination and a fair amount of hard graft and a sprinkling of talent throughout the selection but I'm no Nostradamus when I say it won't last. Over an extended period of time they have in the end made the most of what they had and secured a brilliant gold medal at the Rio Olympics. What a result that was.

So what needs to happen?

Well it needs to start at club level. The clubs have a responsibility and a vested interest in attracting youngsters, and I am talking as young as 5-6 years of age. This is a no brainer. The young club members is where every club makes its money and obviously it is the youngsters on who it's future depends. All the clubs need to setup clinics, exhibitions and organise weekend workshops every season. These clinics and workshops need to be run by the top players from the men's and women's first teams. For smaller clubs, nationally recognised players need to be brought in to increase interest. Financially this does not have to cost much money at all. It requires input from the players more than anything else. It is a responsibility that must be embraced and taken seriously. Families need to be brought into the fold. The workshops and clinics need family involvement, whether it be helping with the organisation or just by joining in the BBQ and drinks after, it is critical a family club culture is created.

This brings us to a fundamental issue. People. Just like in any small business, the success of the endeavour relies almost entirely on the people in the organisation and their input. There needs to be a willingness to grow the club.

1. Set clear goals and expectations - for example, we want to have 200 club members under the age of 15 by the end of the year. Or, we want to have a yearly turnover of x amount coming from the juniors section of the club by the end of the year. This needs to be clearly communicated to the parents of the young club members including the expectations from their part and what, if met, they and more importantly their children will gain from meeting those goals (i.e. better facilities, improved coaching etc), Which brings us nicely to my next point.

2.  Communication - as with any company, keeping active lines of communication between those running the organisation and its consumers and/or clients is critical. This needs to incorporate all of today's social media platforms (twitter feed on the club website, facebook page etc) as well as regular, clearly laid out emails that provide the parents with all the necessary information. This leads us to my next point which is just as critical in engaging everyone behind the club's goals.

3. Transparency - the club needs to be entirely open and transparent about the people running the club and their roles therein. This doesn't only provide clarity and avoids misunderstandings and confusion, it also harbours trust and a feeling of working towards a common goal. There is nothing more divisive and less productive than a sports club being closed off and secretive about how it run and how it goes about its business.

4. People - most important of all. As in every small businesses its success ultimately relies on the people running it. If you do not have the right people, people who are enthusiastic and invested in the common goal all of the above will be irrelevant. A family culture must be created. Coaches, senior players, youth players and parents need to be invested and want to get involved, especially on weekends. Saturdays need to be family events. A family club breeds a culture that is extremely powerful. Culture is the basis of a successful club (or business for that matter) and it forms the collective memory of the club and its sport. It is a determining factor in the future behaviour and interaction between its members. It is also the basis on which club values are built which in turn generated a bond amongst the clubs members.

What a sports club should look like every weekend

Bringing the above fundamentals back to hockey as the example, the system is quite simply a mess. England Hockey is a shambles. The league format has changed more than David Beckham's hairstyle. Almost every year it has been altered, leaving the national setup unrecognisable and unbearably complicated for everyone.

It's not just hockey in England. The premiership is the most invested in sports league in the world yet somehow with all this money and financial aid the FA still can not find a way to produce a productive youth system. With that much financial support, interest but most importantly inspiration for youngsters in the English football league, how have the English clubs not produced truckloads of young stars over the past 5-10 years? I cannot get my head around it. And I don't buy the argument that the youth development in England is stunted due to the fact that the major clubs rather start the £20 million foreign star player than the talented local kid. They train together every day don't they? What better exposure and opportunity to learn for a young player? If they are good enough they will be selected. So the problem comes from before the time that decision is made. By the time the young English players is 18 or 19 they should be stars of their own. Financed by the league and inspired and learnt from the best. A more productive and opportune environment I cannot imagine.

In 2006 Sebastian Coe, the chairman of London 2012, said: "Winning the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games represents the single biggest opportunity in our lifetime to transform sport and participation in sport in the UK forever. We have a unique opportunity that we must not squander to increase participation in sport, at community and grassroots levels as well as elite levels; from the school playground to the winner's podium."

Great Britain did exceptionally well at the Rio Olympics of 2016, performing beyond expectations. On top of this, sports participation since 2012 has increased in many sports, especially for women. So is this a sign that the opportunity Lord Coe spoke of was grasped with both hands and not squandered? On the basis of the facts above you'd say yes it is, however do the numbers and medals at Rio paper over the cracks that have always been there? Sure participation in sport is up in women but even Sport England chief executive Jennie Price admitted,  although participation has gone up in some sports, it has declined in many others. Athletics and cycling for example, both down by 5 and 4% respectively. Although the sport remains popular with people in midlife, we struggle with attracting people under the age of 25!



Each sport as a whole, but more precisely, individual clubs themselves need to stop relying on funding from UK Sport. They need to focus on growing their sport from the inside and from the ground up. Clubs need to carve out their own niche and in doing so create an autonomous institution that breeds participation and success.

The organisation that can attract, develop and keep the most enthusiastic talent creating a culture of excellence and wellbeing have a distinct advantage over their competitors. And this culture in turn will grow the sport as a whole.

As a famous artist once said, "I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way".

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