Tom Herbert

Sport: To the Next Level

As a new sporting year begins, Tom Herbert looks at the trends, techniques and technology improving sport in independent schools

(This piece was originally written for Independent School Sport Magazine published in Sept 2014, words and pictures reproduced with permission of the editor. It can be read in its original form here)

In days gone by preparing for school sport after the summer break might have meant packing away your grass-stained cricket whites, chiselling last season’s dried mud from your boots and desperately hoping your PE kit still fits. Now, however, students are more likely to be completing their bespoke summer fitness programme, checking their latest personalised video analysis or emailing their Director of Sport about conditioning training. While it may have been a mixed 2014 for Britain’s professional footballers, cricketers and rugby players, the success of this year’s Commonwealth Games and the continued legacy of participation from the London Olympics means that for both staff and students, school sport has never been higher on the agenda.

Prior Park rugby

Prior Park rugby

Millfield School’s Director of Sport, former Olympic gold medallist and England Hockey performance director David Faulkner, believes that the London Games has given sport a significant new profile across the British Isles, and this translates into more interest from students. “All this activity is filtered back in at school level. Sport is so important, and it’s up to schools to put the processes in place to give to make sure that they get the best possible experience.” Faulkner continues, “elite sport is unlikely to see how much of an impact the London games has had until the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, but at grass roots level participation numbers have increased, which can only be positive for school sport.”


One area of continuing growth for independent schools has been in girls’ sport, bucking the national trend of falling participation numbers among young women. An example of this can be found at Royal High School Bath, which this term is launching a new initiative to promote sport for girls in terms of participation and excellence. “It’s not just a question of physical fitness; sport plays an important role in developing confidence, resilience and leadership” outlines school Head Rebecca Dougall. “It helps girls and young woman to become less conscious of how they are seen, and more focused on achieving a goal, either individually or as part of a team.”


Millfield hockey

Millfield hockey

Farlington School’s Director of PE and Games Sara Whittaker agrees, stating “we believe it has a positive impact on the girls’ academic and personal lives in terms of self-confidence, health and team-building. It feeds into the girls’ lives, improving their social and personal skills as well as providing a great way to bring the wider school community together for competitive matches and sporting events.”


Rhys Gwilliam, Director of Sport at Prior Park College and formally DoS at Dean Close, believes that the philosophy of school sport has also evolved. “Kids are no longer just a commodity; schools really try to look after them. If students are injured it not only affects their sporting performance, but we’ve also notice it affects them academically, so physio support is more widely available”.


There has also been a noticeable change in training techniques over the past few years, and many department heads and directors of sport believe that coaching has shifted more towards the individual. One-to-one coaching sessions with trainers are now more common – in rugby, for example, prop forwards and goal kickers require such different skills that it makes sense to coach some of the positions separately, if the resources are available.


Susannah Townsend

Haileybury School Coach Susannah Townsend

In many schools around Britain, sports coaching has also evolved from the traditional model. Although the majority of schools still have a head of department who is a qualified PE teacher, schools are increasingly recruiting directors of sport from an elite sporting background. Examples include Paul Hull, who in 2011 moved from coaching Bristol Rugby club in the English Championship to work at Dean Close as Director of Rugby, while more recently Haileybury School in Hertfordshire announced the appointment of South African international Dirkie Chamberlain and England midfielder Susannah Townsend, both of whom starred at the recent world cup, as professional hockey coaches. There is an increasing belief that coaches from an elite sporting background can help not only by training students to the next level of performance, but also by looking at things from a sports science and sports medicine point of view and assessing and upgrading facilities at their schools according to their needs.


Fitness is another key battleground in the race for improvement. Over the summer break many schools gave their students personal fitness programmes to work on, and during the season it is common for students to receive at least one conditioning session a week. As Prior Park’s Rhys Gwilliam points out, “strength and conditioning are massive now. Conditioning has become more important, especially with rugby where collisions have become heavier and the players need the muscle to prevent serious injury.”


Millfield Performance Analysis

Millfield Performance Analysis

The quality of technology available is also playing a part in advancing the value of coaching sessions. David Faulkner at Millfield believes that “new technology has become increasingly significant, and will become even more so in the future”. The Somerset school have recently introduced a fully integrated system to analyse performance across a range of school sports, and have recruited a dedicated performance analysis leader to examine the data generated by the system. Once the match or training data has been processed and analysed by the coach, it is then placed on the ‘Team Performance Exchange’ platform, where footage and data of individual and team performances can be shared and accessed by pupils. As Faulkner points out, “the system ties in with the school’s wider mobile learning policy. Every pupil has a tablet and the system makes use of this and the way the school has gone digital.” Technology has also helped to raise the profile of school sport, moving it away from newsletters and scoreboards and into a more interactive era, with social media and school websites providing up-to-the-minute information on fixtures, results and performances.


So as students up and down the country prepare for their winter sport programme, whether they can find that missing lacrosse stick or can remember the intricacies of the new scrum rules or not, it is more likely than ever before that the advances in coaching, facilities and technology will give them the chance to fulfil their potential.



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