Greater investment in school sports facilities, grass roots coaching and specialist PE teachers is key to boosting Northern Ireland’s Olympians of the future, a leading academic has claimed.
Dr Nigel Dobson, head of sport services at the University of Ulster, has warned that the Assembly must capitalise on the legacy of London 2012.
“There is recognition that there is a requirement to do something,” Dr Dobson said. “We (Northern Ireland) do not have the facility stock in schools that other areas might have. Also, we have to look at the quality of facilities in our schools. Having spent the last few weeks in and around London, I have had a chance to look at what they have — for example the schools have artificial pitches which are used by the local community as well.
“The Olympics have been really inspirational but the whole question is how to turn that into participation. Money is key.”
Dr Dobson said there was too much focus on traditional sports such as rugby, hockey and GAA at secondary level education. He believes that by the time young people reach the “abundance of choice” at universities, it could be too late.
“We encourage a multi-sports approach and that is good at junior age. But, it is hard to get over the dominance (of traditional sports) which have the profile. The Olympics have given us a whole range of role models from different sports that people will want to try so we need to be working with local authorities, schools and universities in encouraging people into different sports.”
Last week London Mayor Boris Johnston said children should have two hours of PE a day. Prime Minister David Cameron claimed more should be done to develop competitive sports.
Physical education is compulsory for pupils aged four (key stage 1) to 16 years old in Northern Ireland and although there is no minimum time limit, most schools factor about two hours of sport a week into their timetables.
Dr Dobson added: “Coaching is also important. A lot comes down to the quality of coaching within schools. I know that the governing bodies are doing a lot but, but we have to look at enhancing that. Also, the value of sports and PE teachers as talent spotters is probably underplayed and could be worked on and enhanced.”
It is understood that new-build schools are fitted with astro turf pitches and fitness suites but others struggle with facilities.
Chris Peel, principal at Sullivan Upper in Holywood — which has produced sports stars like golfer Rory McIlroy and Katie Kirk, the 800m runner chosen to light the Olympic flame — has urged politicians to “build” on the recent achievements.
“If we are to inspire a generation we need young people to step out of their front door and within a mile or two to have top class facilities,” he said. “There must be a legacy from London 2012 and Northern Ireland needs to have facilities.
“Compared with the big comprehensives in England we are doing pretty well. We cannot compete with the independent schools (such as Eton) in England but, we hear about comprehensive schools not providing any sports education. We do not have that problem in Northern Ireland. We just need to build on it.”
Concerns were raised that Northern Ireland may miss out on the legacy of London 2012 after plans to build five elite training facilities including a cycling velodrome in Downpatrick, tennis centre for Hillsborough, sailing facility at Ballyholme, athletics track for Antrim and basketball centre in Lisburn were axed.
Andrea McCullough, head of PE at Ballyclare High and a former Ireland hockey international said: “Now is the moment to strike to make lasting changes that will positively impact into the future. We need more teachers and coaches involved in PE so that we can offer our children even more sporting opportunities.”
She added: “I also think that more clubs and societies could invite local schools and community groups in to experience their sport, first-hand. This introduction could encourage young people’s participation from an early age, helping them to develop essential life skills.”
Belfast City Council is among local authorities currently investing in sport. On Monday the first sods for new 3G pitches at Dunville and Woodvale were cut.
Dominic Walsh, chair of Sport Northern Ireland, said: “Sport Northern Ireland continues to invest directly in the Governing Bodies of sport to establish systems which identify and develop elite athletes of the future.
“Knowing that there was going to be enormous enthusiasm generated by the Games, Sport NI planned strong participation programmes several years ago.
“The Active Communities programme has been awarded the Inspire Mark, which means it is accessible and inspiring.
“To date, there are 109 coaches in place across all 26 district council areas, delivering 39 different sports and activities, and over 130,000 people have participated in Active Communities.”