Analysis of a national problem

‘Show me a good loser and you’ll see a loser’



IT WAS May 2004, and Jamie Murray was sitting in the pavilion at Bridge of Allan Sports Club discussing his participation in the forthcoming French Junior Open, a tournament to which he - the world’s 43rd-ranked junior - had gained entry only after the injury-enforced withdrawal of the world No.1. That No.1 being his younger brother, Andy.

Jamie was modesty personified: shy, self-effacing, “just a really nice guy” in the words of his mother, Judy. The atmosphere was calm and relaxed, the conversation pleasant and easy. And then Andy arrived, carrying two snooker cues. He burst through the clubhouse doors and tossed one of the cues at Jamie, as if it were a gauntlet - which it was, in effect.

The message was clear: a knee injury might have been stopping him from playing tennis, but he would try to whip his older brother’s ass at snooker instead. “Andy hates losing,” said Jamie, smiling nervously.

Andy Murray, who lives by Stephen Hendry’s credo of “show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser”, is a “warrior”, according to Graham Watson, director of the Scottish Institute of Sport Foundation. Watson says that Scotland needs more like him: athletes with the warrior instinct, which more often than not equates to a winning mentality. If we don’t find more Andy Murrays, he adds, “Scotland’s achievements in the world’s sporting arenas are likely to decline”. Because “many young sportspeople in Scotland do not know what it takes to become world class”.

In a sense, this seems blindingly obvious, and so it was to the foundation, which is the brainchild of the rugby international turned oil magnate, Sir Bill Gammell (pictured below), and has £2m backing from assorted business people, philanthropists and the Scottish Executive.

But knowing the answer does not always help to answer the question. If the remedy for underachievement or mediocrity is to produce more Andy Murrays - more warriors - the question is how. And it is this question that is exercising the foundation. Having kept a low profile since its launch, this intriguing and slightly mysterious organisation, whose aim is to have more Scots excelling on the world stage by the time of the 2012 Olympics and 2014 Commonwealth Games, today publishes a document, How to achieve a sporting culture of excellence in Scotland.

The foundation believes that it contains some radical answers, and points a firm finger towards some solutions. The published document is the result of a year-long research study, which was commissioned by the foundation some months before its launch in February, and undertaken by Professor Fred Coalter of the department of sports studies at Stirling University.

On first inspection, the most striking aspect of the report is the calibre of those canvassed during the study: 31 athletes, administrators and coaches took part, and few big names are missing from the list. It includes renowned athletics coaches Frank Dick and Tommy Boyle, Scotland rugby coach Frank Hadden, one of his predecessors, Ian McGeechan, Olympic cycling champion Chris Hoy, swimming coach Chris Martin, Judy Murray, Andy Roxburgh, Meg Ritchie, UK Sport’s performance director Peter Keen, former Scottish Institute of Sport executive director Anne Marie Harrison and, in what might have been his parting gift to Scottish sport, Tony Mowbray. Another participant was Matt Williams - remember him?

The aim of the study was to explore possible relationships between elite sporting success and aspects of Scottish culture, values and motivations. The conclusion is that Scotland’s quest for international sporting success is being held back, not by lack of investment or talent, but by something that might seem less tangible, more ephemeral. Professor Coalter refers to it as a culture of excellence.

He says: “The most striking thing for me was the degree of consensus. The people we spoke to were consistently saying the same things: that what was missing was a culture of excellence. We set out with some broad notion that there was something wrong with Scottish culture - that we’re critical, negative, all that stuff. But the people we spoke to didn’t focus on that; they said that people didn’t know what it takes to be a top player or an elite athlete. It’s not just about technique and skill - you also have to learn what it takes, and it has to be learned early. So to a large extent it’s about education.”

This led to one of the key conclusions: that a major problem, and contributing factor to the oft-cited malaise afflicting Scottish sport - football victories over France and record hauls of Commonwealth Games medals notwithstanding - is the lack of competitive sport in schools. It is interesting to learn, then, that Watson and representatives from the foundation presented the draft findings of the report to First Minister Jack McConnell only a matter of days before he announced, in Scotland on Sunday, his determination to re-introduce competitive sport to schools.

It was no coincidence, Watson confirms: “We were delighted to see the First Minister’s comments on competitive sport in schools, because it’s one of the conclusions of the research, but it must be reintroduced as part of an integrated, coherent system.”

That means pathways from competitive sport at schools into clubs. It should also mean different coaches to work with athletes at different stages of their development. A “supply chain” is needed, says Coalter, with handing on from one coach to another as an athlete progresses. “We have a problem in this country of coaches being possessive or athletes being overly loyal. The systemic process of handing on is not happening. As one interviewee said: ‘This is a small country, it should be easy.’ But it’s not happening.”

Before any of this is addressed, though, the First Minister’s well-intentioned plan to reintroduce competitive sport in schools presents a challenge. How will it be implemented? “The question of who picks up the mantle of putting competitive sports back into schools is a big one,” says Watson. “Sportscotland can’t do it. At the moment, sport is isolated from education, but we need to find ways of coupling sport and education. If they’re following separate paths, then it’s hard to see how we can implement the recommendations of this report.”

In terms of pursuing this, Watson says that the report will now be used as a framework for some significant lobbying - and the fact that McConnell appears to have responded positively to his meeting with the foundation augurs well. But it will be interesting to see how he responds to another conclusion, one that follows on from the study, rather than coming directly out of it.

McConnell has rejected the idea of a separate minister for sport, but Watson feels there has to be change to the current political status quo. In an ideal world he would be inclined to lobby for such a post. But he is realistic. Instead, he feels that sport should come under the health and/or education agenda rather than being lumped together with culture and tourism, where it currently resides.

“We’ve got a minister for tourism, culture and sport [Patricia Ferguson], but sport is much more relevant to the health and education agendas,” says Watson. “We’d like to see the sporting agenda encompassed within the broader education agenda. If you want competitive sport at school, then you need sport within the education agenda.”

The urgent need to re-introduce a competitive sporting environment in schools is just one of the study’s conclusions. Most of the others are couched in the sort of jargon of sports bureaucracy that makes most lay readers glaze over before gently losing the will to live, or even to stay awake. There are passages on developing “sporting cultures of excellence from school to elite squads” and even on the introduction of “strategic management to reduce fragmentation and ensure integrated supply chains”, but

the foundation’s summary is more straightforward, calling for clearer leadership “and a move away from ad hoc initiatives to a strategically managed supply chain”.

Echoing Coalter, Watson says that education in what it takes to be world class is required from a young age. “We must not strive to be world class in our own wee world.”

For Watson, those are not merely admirable sentiments but a credo by which he and his family live. His young daughters, 15-year-old Sally - who was a part of the Scottish Schoolgirls’ side that won the recent golf home internationals at a canter - and 17-year-old Rebecca are looking to the United States to translate their father’s words into actions: Sally at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy in Florida, Rebecca starting a golf scholarship at the University of Tennessee in August.

“Politicians love sport,” notes Coalter, and it is obvious why. With London 2012 and the possibility of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, there is a drive to ensure that we have athletes who will be able to compete for medals on these stages. There is also the current preoccupation with declining fitness and rising obesity among young people. These two priorities are hardly in direct opposition, but difficulties in reconciling them exist.

“The fitness and obesity agenda has taken over the PE agenda in schools, so inevitably there is an emphasis on inclusion,” says Coalter. The question, then, is how, within this framework, do you develop a culture of competitive sport, designed to unearth and develop elite sportspeople?

Sport’s rise up the political agenda is overwhelmingly positive, but sometimes politicians jump on the wrong bandwagon. In response to the furore over a British Olympic football team, SNP leader Alex Salmond called for Scotland to go it alone at the 2012 London Games: “The key thing in an Olympics is about participation, and allowing a maximum amount of Scots to participate at the highest level.”

Is it? Not if we have designs on winning medals, rather than just participating. When asked whether they were in favour of Scotland going it alone at the Olympics, several Scottish athletes reacted with horror. They feel that being part of the UK programme works for them, giving them access to funding, coaching and internal competition that simply would not be available in Scotland. Commonwealth gold medal-winning cyclist Craig MacLean fears that it would lead to a Peter Nicol-style exodus of Scottish athletes to England, where greater backing would surely be available.

The Scottish Institute of Sport Foundation says it will use its new study as a lobbying tool, and that is surely the organisation’s primary purpose. With respected and influential people on a management committee chaired by Gammell, and with an advisory committee comprising Craig Reedie, Judy Murray, Chris Cusiter, Hazel Irvine and Frank Dick, there is no shortage of business experience and sporting expertise. And as the First Minister’s pledge to reintroduce competitive schools sport shows, they clearly have the ear of those within the corridors of power.

Now the challenge is to create an environment - a culture - where excellence can be promoted. Watson says that research suggests that successful people, “winners”, have shared common behaviour: “They do things in common when under pressure. You’re looking for three things in sports people: their skill, to what extent they have ‘warrior’ instincts, and how they think under pressure.”

You can teach skill and work on technique but, as Coalter says: “Unless you teach those skills under conditions of intense pressure, then you won’t be able to apply them in the competitive environment.” Watson is also keen to stress that the focus is not as narrow as elite sport. Sport, he points out, can give young people mental skills that are applicable across a range of disciplines.

The nature versus nurture argument is complex when it comes to sport, but it would be bizarre to overlook the importance of the environment, which includes facilities, quality of coaching and intensity of competition. Aged 15, Andy Murray went to Barcelona and found an environment that suited him. At the age of 13, Jamie Murray, then ranked No.2 in the world, went to an LTA training academy in Cambridge, and found one that didn’t. “My brother is very talented,” said Andy last year. But his assessment was that the LTA academy had “ruined him for a few years”.

In Bridge of Allan in 2004, Judy Murray explained that her eldest son “was very homesick and he lost a lot of confidence and belief; he really lost his way”. As for Jamie himself, he noted at the time his younger brother’s “complete self-belief”. And while he acknowledged that he and Andy have different personalities, he recognised that, when Andy returned from Barcelona, he was tougher and more confident. “That’s something I have to work on,” said Jamie.

The potential winners…
CARLY BOOTH (Golfer): Scotland’s most famous female golfer is still only 14, and was the only young British player, male or female, to make the recent Junior Ryder Cup team. She was sixth in the British Women’s Stroke Play at Prince’s in Kent, and was selected to attend the David Leadbetter Academy in Florida.

KRIS ROBERTSON (Runner): A precociously talented 400-metres runner, the 18-year-old recently competed at the Junior World Athletics Championships in Beijing, helping the British 4x400m relay team to a bronze medal, behind the USA and Russia. After an immensely promising start to his athletics career in his early teens, he seemed to plateau last season, but this year he has shown signs that he could progress into a good senior athlete. Moving up to under-23s next season will provide a significant test.

JOANNA HENDERSON (Tennis player): In December, the 12-year-old Aberdonian will compete for Britain at the Orange Bowl in Miami, an event considered the unofficial world junior championship (Andy Murray won the boys’ under-12 title in 1999). In February, she won her first British title, the Ariel Winter National Grand Prix Masters at Abingdon. She also gained the Scottish Junior Open title, plus a one-year contract with Murray’s clothing sponsor, Fred Perry.

LYNSEY SHARP (Runner): The daughter of former international athletes Carol and Cameron Sharp, she has emerged as one of Britain’s leading young middle-distance and cross-country runners. The 15-year-old was a prolific winner of the Reebok cross-country series, effectively a national series, at under-13 level, and went on to win the AAA under-15s outdoor and indoor 800m titles.

PETER KIRKBRIDE (Weightlifter): He was the only Scot selected by a national newspaper when it featured the 12 leading medal prospects for the 2012 Olympics. The 18-year-old from Kilmarnock has won every title, and set every record, at age level, and is now starting to clean up in senior competition. He began weightlifting aged 10 under the tutelage of former Commonwealth Games competitor Charlie Hamilton, who says that Kirkbride is the most promising weightlifter ever to emerge from Scotland.

SHANE CHARLTON (Cyclist): Like compatriot and mentor Chris Hoy, he is a track cyclist and a sprint specialist who made his debut for Britain this season. At the Austrian Junior International, he helped the British team to first in the team sprint. The 17-year-old from Fife has been selected for the Olympic Development Programme, and is being supported by British Cycling’s World Class Performance Plan - arguably the cycling world’s most effective talent factory.

And the potential losers…
SHIRLEY WEBB (Hammer thrower): The perfect example of the athlete identified by the SIS Foundation. She has the technique and the talent to win medals, but freezes on the big stage. Now 25, she came late to the sport, having originally been a ballet dancer, and perhaps suffers from missing out on intensive competition in her formative years.

NICK SMITH (Runner): The 23-year-old went to the Athens Olympics, and was in the gold medal-winning 4x100-metres relay squad. Yet his progress has stalled, the Fifer winning Scottish titles, but losing his way at the international level.

What our top coaches said:

  1. Re-introduce competitive sport in schools.

  2. Develop sporting cultures of excellence from schools to clubs and elite squads.

  3. Develop earlier, more systematic talent identification programmes.

  4. A continuum of coaches to deal with every stage of an athlete’s development.

  5. More international travel and competition for athletes and coaches.

  6. Resources to be targeted at “winners” or sportspeople with world-class potential.

“The [Scottish] coaches are afraid of us [foreign coaches], and if you are afraid you are not open-minded. A lot of coaches here never went abroad, but think that they have in-depth knowledge.”

“What is lost is the broad-based physical education platform that used to be developed from age eight or nine.”

“If you don’t have the quality of competition that tests your skill levels under immense pressure, you are never going to develop that.”

“School doesn’t encourage competition. You are not allowed to single out performance: everyone has to be successful.”

“Schools should identify the talents and send them to clubs, district squads etc, but there’s no co-operation between schools and high-performance sport.”

“The gap between Scotland and GB level is greater than ever, but the structure is not there to help young athletes bridge that gap.”

“In France, it takes a long time to become a coach. In Scotland, you attend a course for three months, and then you are a coach.”

“Scots are hard-working in terms of running after the ball, [but] they act just for the sake of hard work, not for the sake of winning.”

“In the US, if you lose, no big deal. The cost of failure is negligible. If you lose in Scotland, everybody jumps on you. No-one wants to take a risk because the cost of failure is high.”

This article:

Last updated: 21-Oct-06 00:44 BST

i have since moved from a regional area, approx 25k people to a major city about 2yrs ago. back in the regional area, you had to work hard to get a trophy. ribbons were the norm, medals were great and trophys were end of yr acheivements.
in the capitol city, seems, everybody gets a trophy!! so long as you play the sport, finnish a few games, you will get a trophy?? So, if you loose here, you get a trophy, if you loose in regional area, you get nothing.
i will take the if you loose you get nothing anytime. Teaches you the value of working hard and getting good results.