Athletes in training

Olympic sports light a flame in independent school students, writes Simon Fry


Few, if any, sporting spectacles excite like the Olympic Games. From the iconic 100m final to the city-wide wonder of the marathon, from the round-by-round tension of field events to the thrill of the relay, the games hold a global audience captive.

When it comes to the provision of Olympic sports, independent schools willing to go the extra mile or, indeed, the extra 1,500m, will find rich rewards in engaged pupils who may even go on to represent their country on the international stage.

Heading to Tokyo

Rugby School alumni Paralympian Sam Ruddock is in training for Tokyo 2020 in track cycling and regularly visits the school to speak to its sports scholars.

For those pupils with similar sporting aspirations, Rugby School provides many of the sports included in the 2020 Olympics, with specialist coaches offering expert tuition, including Ellie Watson, who represented GB at the hockey World Cup and ex-England basketball player Mark Spatcher. The school’s athletics coach, James Wright, represented GB’s U23s in combined events.

An array of onsite facilities include a rifle-shooting range, three indoor basketball courts, three hockey AstroTurf pitches, a 25m indoor swimming pool, 10 badminton courts, 35 tennis courts and 13 rugby pitches. Offsite facilities allow the school to run equestrian, shooting, golf and sailing programmes and thus link with local clubs and share coaching.

High-tech equipment ensures pupils reach peak performance, and stay there, according to the school’s director of sport,

Debbie Skene: “Students are monitored using GPS trackers during training and matches, with data linked to match footage taken by two cameras on pitches. Footage and data are loaded onto an analysis app that students can access via their phones. They receive group seminars on their performance and one-to-one feedback.”

Students are also screened three times annually to assess their physical literacy, helping to design and implement personal training programmes, leading to a reduction in injury. Rugby School also has a health and safety officer who works closely with all of its coaches to ensure safety procedures are followed and risk assessments updated.

Most Leweston School pupils have taken part in modern pentathlon sports

Sport for all

Participation in Olympic sports is widespread at St Mary’s School, Cambridge, where 48% of pupils take part in track and field athletics, 48% also do gymnastics and 55% play hockey. A growing number – almost 100 girls aged 11–18 – take to the water, with rowing an increasingly popular sport offering.

The school’s ambitious vision for rowing saw it open a state-of-the-art boathouse in September last year, providing senior school and sixth form students access to exceptional facilities and coaching. Located on the River Cam, the boathouse provides great access to the water and is well-stocked with single, double and quadruple sculls. It also offers an extensive gym for land training.

Stuart Cain, St Mary’s rowing co-ordinator, leads a team of six coaches who train three squads.

He says: “St Mary’s rowing programme provides a clear pathway from beginner to performance-level rowing and racing at local and regional level.”

Back on dry land, work has begun which will transform St Mary’s School’s existing sports facilities at Long Road. The ambitious development project will provide two new AstroTurf pitches, three netball and tennis courts, and athletics track and field facilities, plus a new pavilion with a kitchen and changing rooms.

Alongside the outstanding new rowing facilities on the River Cam for St Mary’s oarswomen, Long Road will greatly enhance opportunities for students to discover, experience and excel in a wide range of sport, delivering St Mary’s commitment to encourage sport for all.

As well as benefiting St Mary’s girls and students of Homerton College, the new Long Road facilities will also be accessed by members of the wider community, as part of Cambridgeshire County Council’s health and wellbeing strategy.

The modern pentathlon event, a mainstay of the Olympics since 1912, comprises fencing, swimming, show-jumping, pistol-shooting and cross-country, and is based on the skills needed by a typical Greek soldier during the time of the original, ancient Olympics.

Equestrian excellence

The modern pentathlon event, a mainstay of the Olympics since 1912, comprises fencing, swimming, show-jumping, pistol-shooting and cross-country, and is based on the skills needed by a typical Greek soldier during the time of the original, ancient Olympics.

In 2020, Leweston School, one of only nine pentathlon academies in the UK, sees the majority of its pupils giving some aspect of the pentathlon a go. On horseback, 27 students are registered as competitive riders competing in the Olympic sports of dressage, show-jumping and eventing, competing regularly at national level.

The majority of the school’s sporting leads have connections to national bodies including UK Athletics: Leweston’s head of pentathlon is a Team GB coach as are its fencing and shooting coaches. The equestrian team, which recently visited Olympic rider Chris Burton’s home yard for a training session, train with the GB young rider eventing coach and chef d’equipe Emma Fisher.

The equestrian team is led by the school’s own, in-house equestrian manager, Lorraine Roberts, who says: “In my opinion we have a duty to our sporting students to broaden their knowledge of the competitive world through top-level experiences they might not get anywhere else. By having access to national, international and Olympic riders or coaches they will understand that with hard work, dedication (and natural talent) they can also achieve success at top level if they really want to.”

The school has a particularly strong reputation in cross-country which is seen as a partner to the athletics programme, particularly for middle-distance running. Weekly running sessions for all age groups are hosted year-round, the school also supports students by exposing them to the full range of competitions at a local, regional and national level. One student is likely to gain a place on the English team this year and is currently ranked number two nationally for 1,500m in his age group.

Leweston School has 27 pupils registered as competitive riders

Rio glory

Aspiring athletes at Rydal Penrhos School need look no further than former pupil Vicky Thornley, a double sculls silver medallist at the Rio Olympics, to see how far they can go in sport. Vicky is only the most recent of numerous Olympic-level athletes from the Welsh independent school.

“These sorts of achievements serve as a massive inspiration to pupils looking to follow in their footsteps and shows them what can be achieved if you work hard and make every second count,” says Nicky Head, the school’s head of physical education.

Boasting its own performance centre, the school recently launched a new in-house RPS Sports Programme for sports scholars and others displaying potential within various fields.

This includes weekly seminars on everything from nutrition to time management, weekly analysis sessions with staff and goal-setting during the holidays.

This has been a great asset for pupils, not only during performance but also acquiring knowledge standing them in good stead during the remainder of their sporting lives once they leave school.

“We are lucky to have a tremendous coaching staff who go above and beyond to help our pupils reach their goals,” says Nicky.

She continues: “Our hockey programme has been hugely successful in recent years, clinching national titles at U14, 16 and 18 level in addition to a wealth of Welsh internationals.”

Leweston School is one of only nine UK pentathlon academies

Realising potential

Project MVP was launched in 2018 with a mission to give athletes the opportunity to become the best version of themselves; since then over 1,300 schoolchildren have experienced their programmes.

Children’s potential is identified through a range of assessments measuring a diverse array of athletic skills. Their height, weight and seated height are measured to gain a snapshot of their biological maturity, with further measurements including their 20m sprint time, vertical jump height and strength measured through a static pull.

To blend physical and cognitive skills, Project MVP has produced a reaction test wherein the athlete moves their hand towards a specific light, ignoring incorrect lights. The assessment finishes with the YoYo test to measure aerobic capacity for the younger ages and anaerobic capacity for pupils in year 10 and above.

Each individual is ranked against every other person of their sex and year of birth who has also completed Project MVP’s assessments, providing the athlete with detailed insights into where their skills lie and where areas of improvement may be, based on their national comparison.

All pupils new to strength and conditioning are placed on a familiarisation plan where they are introduced to new movements and their correct technique. For the main school sports of basketball, football, rugby, netball and hockey, pupils can follow a sport-specific plan, with programming dictated by the results of their assessment. A scholarship process sees those who have performed exceptionally well on their assessment day invited onboard.

While they may come around only once every four years, children introduced to Olympic sports at the UK’s independent schools can find a passion lasting a lifetime. Thanks to schools’ provision of cutting-edge facilities, dynamic programmes and elite-level coaches, some of these students may be Olympic medallists of the future.

This feature was published in Independent School Sport magazine before the Olympic Games were postponed


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