Professor Eric Saunders' column
Since taking on my role as Chairman of the Sports Council for NI, I have become increasingly aware of the role being played by Youth Sport in the development of sport in Northern Ireland. The programme has continued to progress at a significant rate over the last 5 years to the point where there are now 140 School Sports Co-ordinators in place, in Northern Ireland and Sligo/Donegal. With each of these co-ordinators working in an average of 4 feeder primary schools, one can see that there is over 700 of the 1100 schools in Northern Ireland now involved in the programme.
The scheme is very much based on partnerships. Partnerships with District Councils, with Education and Library Boards, with Governing Bodies of Sport and I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate all our partners for their enthusiasm in ensuring that this programme is a success.
Last year was a particularly busy year for everyone involved, as the programme took on a performance pathway for these young people initially through the Schools of Sport, and then into the Northern Ireland Millennium Youth Games - the highlight of which took place on Saturday 17 June at Queens Playing Fields and other facilities around the Greater Belfast area. The enjoyment the young people were getting was evident on their faces throughout the day as they took parting 17 different sports with shouts of enthusiasm going up from time to time around the campus. The event went off without a hitch but would not have taken place but for the hard work put in by everyone concerned in ensuring that it was such a success. From here the young people moved on to Southampton, and again performed very creditably on a UK stage were they participated in some of the events that had been held at Northern Ireland level.
As Youth Sport continues to grow it is interesting to note that England and Scotland are in the process of appointing School Sports Co-ordinators. Whilst these co-ordinators might have different contracts to those in Northern Ireland the same principal of management, training and support still applies, It is important in Northern Ireland that we do not become complacent. Some co-ordinators do not have the time they had originally to do the job and without this time there is a danger that Youth Sport starts fading into the background. The structures are in place, we must not allow this to happen, and we in the Sports Council will be working with partners over the next year to ensure that contracts for School Sports Co-ordinators are enhanced rather than reduced.
Over the last three years we have had a very successful partnership with the Youth Sport Trust based in Loughborough. Support given by Sue Campbell and her staff has been outstanding and with Paul Whitten who is in post as Development Officer the TOPs programme has grown from strength to strength. Training has taken place for both teachers and coaches alike and a huge number of bags have been placed within schools and clubs and community settings throughout Northern Ireland. This development at grass roots level is so important for the future sporting lives of the young people who have had the opportunity to become involved. It is vital that over the next year these opportunities are built upon and further opportunities given to these young people.
Coaching obviously pays a significant part in the further development of Youth Sport. It is interesting to note that 93 coaches attended the Youth Sport Coaching Week and it is hoped that we will be able to offer similar opportunities in the years ahead. It is through our coaches that young peoples interests and skills will be honed and further developed to make the sporting stars of the future.
Taking part in the Olympic Games is everyone's dream. However turning this dream into a reality doesn't often happen. This year Mary Rice who had been involved in the Youth Sport programme in Fleming Fulton School went on to add a silver medal to the bronze medal won at previous paralympics in Atlanta. Our congratulations obviously go to Mary, but more significantly our hopes are that the dreams of other young people can be turned to reality in the years to come.
Professor Eric Saunders,
Chairman, Sports Council for Northern Ireland.