Thursday, June 02, 2011

Talent for the future

With the top competitive teams in the country being supported by the sportscotland Institute of Sport through the World Class Performance Programme with its Podium and Performance Squads (see here), what should the Royal Caledonian Curling Club be doing - on behalf of its members - to support and develop those younger players who aspire to play at top level, those indeed whose vision is one day to compete in the Olympics? Who will be representing Scotland at the World Championships, and Great Britain at the Olympics, looking ahead to 2018, 2022 and 2026? It is a question to which there is no easy answer, but I am very pleased to see that it's being thought about now.

Note that I'm not asking, 'What should the Royal Club be doing generally to develop our sport more widely?" That's a different subject. Rather, the question - in 2011 speak - is all about 'Performance Pathways' and is about putting in place the starting blocks on a road which one day might bring the new curler to winning medals at a world championship. Elitist? One hopes not. Any programme at grass roots level should provide an opportunity for ALL young curlers early in their careers, giving them the chance to experience what might be involved in competing at the highest level, and realising their potential should they have a vision to compete at the top with the commitment to making that happen.

Since 2005, the Royal Club has had 'National Academy' and 'Regional Academy' programmes. These are no more. I am sure that most reading this, with but a passing awareness of what programmes there are to encourage our young curlers, might think that the two new programmes now in place are just a follow on to what went before. Not so. The new Royal Club Academy and the Royal Club Talent Programmes are different. There is one common link. It was Nancy Murdoch who implemented the National and Regional Academy programmes back in 2005 when she was the Royal Club's Performance Development Coach. Rhona Martin and Brad Askew took these programmes and ran successfully with them for a number of years. Now Nancy is back in charge again.

I don't pretend yet to understand all the intricacies of the two new programmes. I have no doubt that the strengths and weaknesses will become apparent as they are implemented over the next season or two. What I like about them is that they connect the Royal Club's Skills Awards at the one end, with the elite programmes of the Institute at the other. As it should be, the Institute and the Royal Club will be working together, with the one aim of having Scottish (British) teams winning medals in the future. Not just in the next three years, but much further ahead.

You can read about the two Royal Club programmes on the RCCC website. The Royal Club Academy programme is described here. The forty curlers, based in teams, selected for the 2011-12 season were announced early last month. The number of curlers supported may rise to eighty over the next three years. Only the Gold ranked teams may receive overseas training/competition support, but this is subject to resources available. All Academy teams will benefit from fortnightly technical training sessions and a squad day in addition to other programme support services. Each curler has to pay a contribution towards participation. Value for money? Surely so, but time will tell.

At the introductory level, the aims of the Talent Programme are:
• To raise and encourage developing potential level to achieving excellence by providing pathway support training programmes.
• To increase strength and depth of athletes within the British Curling and Royal Club’s Performance Programme
• To encourage athlete and team participation in RCCC and Ice Rink competitions therefore increasing participation.
• To identify talent at a young age within each Ice Rink in Scotland
• Encourage and improve young curler’s skills by measuring and monitoring proficiency that is recognised by the RCCC Skills Awards Scheme
• The Royal Club Talent Programme is a development programme to integrate into the performance programme
• Manage goal setting and expectations of performance progression.

The Talent Programme is the foundation of the competitive pyramid. The curlers selected for this programme were announced on Monday. They are listed here. Each has to pay a small sum to offset the costs involved. Again, exactly what the curlers will get for being part of the programme and how they will benefit remains to be seen. The curlers themselves will no doubt be the ones to tell me next season!

The one thing I like is that this programme is ice rink based. 'Representing your ice rink' is how it used to be. Anything that gives individual ice rinks prominence has to be a good thing. If every rink in the country reaches its maximum of eight young athletes, then the pool of 'talent' for U17 and U21 competitions grows significantly over what exists at present. And, as the aims suggest, these curlers are to be actively encouraged to compete.

Of course, the success of the Talent Programme will depend on the coaches at each ice rink. Any programme that involves 'selection' requires a degree of transparency, and objectivity, openness and fairness in ensuring that opportunity is there for all, and not just for a select few. Good coaching will be the key. Hopefully the programme will not be divisive. Opportunity for everyone? In theory that is the ideal, although what is practical and achievable, is something completely different. We're thinking of the future here. If the TP can give a helping hand to budding Eve Muirheads and Anna Sloans, then we might look back on 2011 and say that was the right way to go.

There will be those that sense that there will be no place in the future for four friends to get together and compete at top level, not having come through these programmes. Will it be a bad thing if all the teams competing in world qualifying competitions in the future have come out of the same stable? For sure, those looking after the top teams now, with all the support they get, will want curlers well used to the 'Performance Pathway' and all the training and commitment required. Curling has changed.

The new Royal Club programmes are ambitious. Good luck to Nancy Murdoch and Brad Askew in the season ahead.