Times Educational Supplement

Safer way to get into tennis…writes Roddy Mackenzie

As the Andy Murray phenomenon sweeps through schools after his achievements last year on the international tennis circuit, teachers are beginning to realise how hazardous racket sports can be.

Children as young as 4 are wanting to swing a racket, but school gyms are not the most accommodating places. Give 30 primary children a racket and ball or shuttlecock and ask them to practise in a confined area and you are likely to get mayhem.

The English company Plusballs, set up by a part-time teacher, believes it has the answer and the product to introduce them to tennis or badminton.

A plusball is a lightweight, slow moving ball imported from the Far East.

It is designed so that young children can control it as easily as a balloon but it moves like a normal ball. The company, started by Roger Stroud in Cirencester five years ago, now regularly imports thousands of them and has already sold 110,000 to schools throughout Britain.

Mr Stroud argues that traditional rubber balls, sponge balls, airflow balls and shuttlecocks are virtually uncontrollable for young children learning racket sports as a group.

“Because children can’t control balls, they are running all over the hall after them, creating chaotic, even dangerous, situations,” he says. “What’s more, they get frustrated and despondent, so their earliest experience of racket games is a negative one.

“If a teacher has got this far, he or she will also get frustrated and take racket sports off the curriculum as unworkable.”

A large class using plusballs can be handled easily, Mr Stroud says.

Children can get rallies going without direct teacher involvement and gain spatial awareness, improved co-ordination skills and increased confidence levels. They can then move on to faster, heavier and bigger balls.

“It’s all about building up the confidence of a child,” he explains.

Mr Stroud first demonstrated the balls to the Lawn Tennis Association in England and has had considerable interest in Scotland. Last term he took an order from Kingussie High in Highland.

“All we are teaching is the first rung of the ladder and getting children involved in sport. After 12 or 13 sessions, they can move on to the next level.”

Mr Stroud comes from a racket sports background and has tended to concentrate on selling plusballs for initial tennis and badminton coaching, but he has had difficulty persuading the sports governing bodies to take them on board formally, although Scottish Badminton has been supportive.

However, he believes other sports can benefit from them as well and he has had some interest from the Scottish Football Association recently.

Drew Kelly, the development officer for the Borders, says: “The balls proved a great success in our SFA pre-school programme and I’m currently investigating the product being included as part of the equipment used in a regional SFA pilot programme being planned for primary children.”

Mr Stroud says his equipment is relatively cheap at £59.50 for 100 plusballs. The company also offers mini rackets (50cm) and is developing a DVD as a teaching aid.

“Children don’t need expensive equipment when they are just starting out, as long as the rackets are light and they are comfortable using them,” he says.

Jed Renilson, the disability sports development officer for Scottish Borders Council, has used plusballs in his classes and been encouraged by the response.

“I have found them a really good help as they slow things down so much,” he says.

“I work with people in wheelchairs and I find the plusballs are ideal. They give individuals a sense of achieving something.

“I have even given them to the football development officers here and they have started to use them.”

Colourful blow up paper balls could help Britain’s future sporting heroes master the basic co-ordination skills they need to strike gold…writes Yolanda Brooks

Sure to be a hit

As the golden memories of Sydney 2000 start to fade, British minds are firmly focused on future sporting success. The unanimous message from victorious athletes at the Olympics was that the £60 million lottery funding made the difference between the one medal from Atlanta and the 11 from Sydney. In a timely attempt to raise sporting performance at all levels, the Government recently earmarked £750 million from the New Opportunities Fund for schools and communities to build sports facilities.

But before children can step on to a court or pitch and pick up a ball, they need to develop co-ordination, agility and control – the building blocks of sporting success. It’s during the early school years that children develop the skills and self-esteem they need to build sporting prowess in later life. But it is also a time when they can be put off for life if they struggle to master the basics.

Mr Stroud was given one of the balls – which are used as a novelty decoration item in the Far East – as a present by one of his students. It has been working wonders in his badminton classes ever since. “It was the answer to my prayers – my eureka moment,” he says. “I had been working with players with various disabilities for more than two years and I was looking for something that was easier to control than a balloon.”

Mr Stroud was given a few more balls by his departing student and has since been using them in all his badminton classes and trying them out in primary schools. “The greatest benefit is that they give the kids time to work out the best way of doing particular tasks,” he says. “Time they simply wouldn’t have with any other missile.”

As he demonstrates with Year 6 and 7 pupils from Kemble county primary school near Cirencester, the speed with which the children develop control of the ball is plain to see. Those who already good hand-eye co-ordination quickly move on to heading the ball and working in pairs to tap it to and fro. The children who are chasing the ball around at the start of the hour-long session quickly develop more sophisticated control techniques. Kemble’s headteacher, Barry Parsons, is impressed. You can see the children developing from tentatively patting the balls to moving them confidently,” he says.

Once children have learned to control the ball, they can apply these skills to a specific sport

The physical education curriculum demands that key stage 1 pupils “should be taught to explore basic skills and actions” and to “remember and repeat simple skills and actions with increasing control and co-ordination.” These paper balls certainly fulfil those criteria in a short space of time. Once children have learned to control the ball, they can move on to apply these skills to a specific sport. As well as giving them a head start in racquet sports, the balls will, Mr Stroud believes, benefit students wanting to play other sports including football, rugby, netball and even volleyball. “They could make a real difference to co-ordination and skills levels across the board. And because of their extreme user-friendliness, they could draw children into sport and activities that might otherwise not have occurred to them.”

Round up: the balls move through the air slowly, giving children time to practise techniques.

Mr Stroud contacted educational suppliers and sport associations to see if anything similar was on the market. Having drawn a blank, he decided to fill the gap in the market by setting up SportsPoints plus to supply them. “All the comments I’ve had from students, parents and professionals have been favourable and I don’t believe the balls have been used for this purpose before. It is a true innovation,” he says.