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Racket sports | Growing sports | At grass roots levelAbove left: South Africa’s Zuko Kubukeli was the 2014 runner-up in the over 40 WSF World Masters Squash Championships in Hong Kong. Above right: KIA South Africa team member Chani Scheepers in action during the Federation Cup earlier this year.
May 2015

Racket sports growing

at grass roots level

Tennis, squash and badminton have many development activities in place to ensure growth in these sports, especially at grass roots level, reports Yamkela Mkebe

There are several interesting initiatives in place to promote tennis, squash and badminton among juniors, in school leagues, in rural areas and at grass roots level.

At retail, tennis is again a good stock option, especially for the junior market. Sales have been growing and there has been about 200% growth in their junior racket sales in the last three years, according to Brad Summers from The Golf Racket, local distributor of Wilson.

“What we see happening is that tennis is once again a cool sport to play, but the major driving force is that some schools are making tennis part of the curriculum and are pushing tennis as a sport for the first time,” says Summers. “If I look at junior racket sales compared to seniors, juniors way out number seniors,” he says.

Sales to the junior tennis market has been pretty stable “as back to school players activates some nice volume sales,” agrees Steve Gallienne from Brand ID local distributor of Dunlop and Slazenger.

The interest in tennis among junior or school players has remained stable over the past two years, according to Leon Freimond, Tennis South Africa (TSA) Manager of Performance, Coaching and Schools. “Before 2013 there was a slight drop in participation numbers, but it has gained and stabilised over the past two years. Especially at primary school level, stabilisation has occurred,” he says.

“Junior players are likely to continue to play as seniors if they are funded and supported, but if not, chances are they leave the sport,” Gallienne concludes.

“In my opinion there are way more junior players than seniors,” says Summers. “You should remember that many juniors no longer belong to clubs, or play official ranking tournaments, or leagues. There are actually many junior tennis tournaments, but the problem is that after school there is not much. There are only a handful of tournaments and good clubs to keep the kids interested in tennis. If tennis could get more senior tournaments and better club facilities, junior tennis would flourish even more,” he says. Most kids used to get introduced to tennis through their parents who were members at a club. Because club membership is down, tennis is relying on schools to introduce the sport to the kids, he adds. He therefore believes that it is very unlikely for a junior player to continue playing as a senior.

A number of factors influences this, including not having enough money and resources available to enhance the sport locally. “This is mostly due to not having a lot of senior tournaments and no money to win locally. Because clubs have also not been maintained there are fewer club members and leagues to participate in.”

“What I have seen is that people seem to come back to tennis when they are a bit older (late 30s) they either miss it or want the exercise tennis used to give them,” he says.

Play and Stay

Freimond says the Play and Stay programme — a concept of the International Tennis Federation that was adopted by TSA — is a good initiative to get younger kids, from Grade 3 onwards, to play tennis. The programme was launched three years ago and is still in the early stages of adoption.

One Play and Stay court is big enough to facilitate 12 players at one time. “Play and Stay is about adapting tennis to the size of the player,” he says. “The Play and Stay programme is also being taught to teachers who haven’t necessarily played tennis before,” Freimond explains.

Through the programme, TSA has regulated that the green dot Play and Stay ball be used in all primary school competitions and leagues. The ball is slower with less compression than a conventional tennis ball and it allows the ball to bounce lower and slower.

“This has made the game easier to learn and play, which resulted in more participation,” says Gallienne. “Coaches still have a long way to go to get children into their programmes but active drives are in place,” he adds.

Because they are more accessible and fun for kids, development programmes like the Kids Development Academy (KDA) and Play and Stay are attracting new players, agrees Summers. The Play and Stay programme is available in most schools and clubs that have tennis courts.

Challenges in tennis

There are, however, a number of challenges to growing the sport amongst juniors.

Lack of facilities is a major challenge, especially in developing areas.

“More facilities are required, but municipalities are not funding sporting facilities and in many cases tennis courts have been closed,” says Gallienne.

“Tennis SA found in the past that dedicated tennis courts were being converted into netball courts or the tennis courts were being made multi-purpose venues,” says Freimond, who believes this had a huge impact on the actual dedicated tennis facilities at schools.

Because there are fewer tennis courts at schools, learners often have to travel long distances to practice or play in league matches, especially in rural areas. In the urban areas, traffic congestion makes it more difficult to reach the tennis courts. The lack of development opportunities and the inability to generate sufficient income, resulted in a shortage of qualified coaches, especially in developing areas, he says.

Competition from other sports is a challenge “because other sports are now played year round and are no longer seasonal,” says Freimond.

But, competition from other sports has always been there, it’s just a matter an individual’s choice, points out Gallienne, who also says that some senior players dropped tennis in favour of cycling, which is growing very rapidly.

“The cost of equipment, footwear and clothing is more so of a challenge in the developing areas,” says Freimond. But, the cost of equipment, footwear and clothing is cheaper than in Europe, where tennis is very popular, qualifies Gallienne.

TSA needs money to invest in training and developing coaches, says Gallienne. Lack of structure and money are a problem in developing the potential of promising junior players, he says. But, despite the lack of funds, there are fairly good and pro-active playing opportunities or tournaments for juniors to advance in rankings.

Brand ID invests into various development programmes and allocate thousands of rands to provinces specifically for development, he says, adding that each province is committed to its own development programme to drive tennis growth.

“Lack of funding for promising juniors is not only a development issue, it also affects performance standards. Locally we have enough tournaments and competition opportunities for juniors — the problem is the lack of international competition opportunities,” says Freimond.

While the number of school leagues and competitions for juniors have decreased compared to 5 years ago, a number of leagues have combined to gain greater volumes. There have also been one or two new competitions introduced for tennis in the last five years, says Summers.

On the positive side, Freimond believes that there are role models like the South African Kevin Anderson that junior players can look up to for inspiration. Freimond says Anderson in particular is becoming a big inspiration not only to tennis juniors, but to juniors in other sporting codes as well.

“When our Davis Cup team play at home it is an inspiration to those able to watch the tie and any international competition hosted in South Africa does inspire the youth. The lack of top international competition in South Africa is due to a shortage of funding and sponsorship.”

Gallienne believes that the performance of South African players like the Women’s Federation Cup team members, who are promoted to a higher level next year, also inspire youngsters.

Summers says that when he was a junior they were all inspired by top players as they showed that success was attainable.

Squash developing

Interest among junior or school squash players has remained stable and even though there are no concrete statistics to prove it, participation has been increasing, believes Liz Addison, Squash SA National Director and Development Manager.

Squash SA is initiating a registration system that will give them the actual numbers of both senior and junior players. Currently the association only have the numbers of players entering in tournaments and leagues. The five age-group Inter-provincial tournaments have a total of 1 000 entrants, the Masters annual Inter-provincial tournament attracts 700 players and the Inter-provincial doubles has had 430 players participating, she says.

Squash now has more leagues and tournaments than in the past, more regions are encouraging school leagues, and a number of equipment sponsors support the provinces or areas to stage tournaments, says Addison.

On the 2015 calendar there are currently 37 individual junior championships, the SA Country Festival Interprovincial in May, the U11, U13, U14, U16 and U19 Inter-provincial team championships in June and the top schools in August. A number of prominent schools are also hosting school team invitational tournaments. It is compulsory for the junior players wanting SA Schools rankings to participate in the Bloemfontein Open, the SA Schools Closed and the Inter-provincial tournaments.

Unfortunately, the many opportunities do not necessarily translate into good sales. Squash sales have been flat for Wilson with growth at the top end, but not reflected in the junior market, says Summers, who believes that squash is in decline worldwide.

“As always, the success or failure of squash in an area depends on the enthusiasm or personality of the person organising it. In a number of the Country District areas there have been an explosion of players.”

She mentions Cara Viljoen in the Northwest, Ian Knott-Craig at Kingswood College in Grahamstown, Maryna Fourie in the Northerns region, and Angela Difford In Port Elizabeth who has been involved in grass roots development for the past 28 years and as a result a number of players have come through the ranks representing the Eastern Cape at junior and senior level.

According to Addison, 477 players participated in the U11 to U19 age groups at the Bloemfontein Junior Open at the beginning of March. She adds that the SA Country Festival Tournament last year attracted a record number of 77 junior teams. This indicates the huge growth of junior squash in country areas, she says. “Funding from Sport and Recreation South Africa (SRSA) has resulted in much success in grass roots development across the country.”

Other positive developments over the past few years include township school coaches qualifying as Level 1 coaches, and township schools are contributing to the sport in the form of paying for lights and team transport, she says. “Old Grey Club has become involved in assisting previously disadvantaged juniors to play senior league after leaving school and some junior players are assisted to continue playing when they enter tertiary institutions. National champion, Siyoli Waters is heavily involved in coaching and clinics in Cape Town.”

Addison says that the Egoli Squash Programme is the most successful and productive grass roots programme. The programme follows the holistic development of the child and has involved their families and life skills.

Challenges for squash

One of the challenges facing squash growth in the junior market is the lack of facilities in rural and previously disadvantaged areas.

“A lack of interest from some schools is another challenge to getting more learners interested in squash, particularly when they do not receive colours or honours as recognition of their achievements. Lack of funding for promising juniors is a huge challenge for all players. Sport is elitist and many sacrifices are made by the parents,” she says.

Very few players play in many events, mainly due to cost. “The problem is that players have to miss school on Fridays as our events start on a Friday evening and finish on the Sunday. With nine events in the first term that is a lot of time off school, particularly for those in Grade 11 and Grade 12,” she says.

Competition from other sports is good as “we need to think out of the box to attract and keep them (players),” says Addison. She adds that squash is a good cross trainer for hockey or cricket. Netball, hockey, indoor hockey, cricket and netball are all strong competitors of squash.

“On the other hand, squash is in a way a sport for late developers and the youth should play as many other sports, particularly team sports, as they can,” adds Addison.

In South Africa there are more senior squash players than juniors because of a variety of reasons. For example, junior players are dependent on their parents for transport to courts that could be far from schools as there is little accessible public transport, juniors are also financially dependent on their parents for club fees or entry fees etc. Leagues also finish too late for learners, There seems to be a tendency for senior players to be moving away from the structured league play to social squash with friends at the gym. Work pressures, which could include travelling, are challenges to commitment for a six months league. Self time and family time are also a hindrance to commitment.

According to Addison, most players continue from the junior ranks through to the senior level. Studies, gap years, business, marriage and children are some of the main reasons why players disappear from, and return to, the squash scene. “As with any sport, to be the top player takes years of dedication, commitment, training, coaching and that hunger in the belly. But, to just play, get some exercise, squash is one of the easiest sports to play at a social level and is reasonably easy when older,” she says.

Badminton at schools

Badminton in South Africa has seen a steady growth over the past five years, and growth accelerated over the past three years, explains Larry Keys, President of Badminton SA which has just under 10 000 members, 60% of them are juniors.

The association has a project supported by the Badminton World Federation (BWF) called shuttle time and “we go into the schools and train the teachers and supply equipment including, nets, shuttles and rackets,” says Keys.

The number of school leagues have grown over the years. There are many competitions for juniors for U9, U11, U15, U17, and U19, according to Keys.

Like many other sporting codes, badminton is faced with a number of challenges.

These include the high cost of hiring facilities for events, lack of funding and competition from other sports, he says. “Most of the sporting codes experience a drop-off after participants leave school and develop other interests. But badminton especially at junior or school level is alive and well,” he concludes.

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