Wales show signs of progress at 2013 School Games

Welsh youngsters are closing the gap on their English and Scottish counterparts, according to Sandra Stoll, the head coach and vice-president of Volleyball Wales.

Wales beat only Northern Ireland in the under-17 boys’ volleyball at the recent Sainsbury’s School Games in Sheffield, but were competitive in five of their six matches.

 

They lost narrowly in both sets (27-25 and 25-21) of their opener against Scotland East before claiming sets off both England South and Scotland West to confirm their progess.

Similarly, the under-16 girls finished sixth out of seven teams at the prestigious multi-sport event, overcoming Northern Ireland and showing considerable improvement on previous years in their overall performances.

Stoll, who coached the girls while Charlotte James took charge of the boys, told Welsh Sports News: “From a results point of view, that’s the best we’ve ever had for both teams together.

“Also for probably the first time, especially on the girls’ side, we’re getting closer to the English teams and the Scottish teams.

“If you looked at the results per set, in previous years we’ve lost 25-10 or 25-5. Now we’re getting closer to challenging them for the sets.

“The boys had three 2-1 matches, they actually were really, really close compared to years before where we’ve maybe managed to win one game or maybe one set, but that was about it. So we’re genuinely catching up.”

Stoll explains that Volleyball Wales is at a disadvantage compared to other parts of the UK in terms of developing young talent. “A lot of the English teams, the players are in academies, they train a minimum of three times a week, a lot of them train every day.

“We manage to train once a week for two hours because we just can’t afford more at the moment from a financial point of view and we haven’t quite cracked an academy-style approach yet.

“And if you look in comparison to the amount of training the English teams do and the amount of training we do, I think the kids have achieved an awful lot with regards to the results, as well as getting closer to the skills level the English teams are at.”

The German-born coach, who has to balance her voluntary duties with Volleyball Wales with a full-time job, emphasises that the School Games is the most important event in the school sports year for the children involved.

There were 12 different sports at the 2013 School Games, ranging from rugby sevens to fencing to wheelchair basketball, with all the participants staying in an Olympic-style athletes’ village at the University of Sheffield’s student halls.

As well as taking part in their own event, in their spare time the children have the opportunity to mingle with their fellow competitors and see other sports in action live.

“Ours went to watch fencing, badminton and gymnastics because that was close by with regards to where our venue was,” Stoll says, “and then you also have other athletes coming to the volleyball venue to watch the games.”

With an opening and closing ceremony adding to the experience, the annual event attempts to give the participants a foretaste of what may await them in their future careers; the Welsh-based 2008 and 2012 Paralympic swimming champion Ellie Symonds is among the former School Games stars to have prospered subsequently in their chosen sport.

Stoll acknowledges: “It’s basically a good starting block for those athletes to progress internationally, get the right event preparation going. It’s a nice learning curve for them.”

The importance of the School Games to Volleyball Wales is confirmed by the exhaustive efforts made by Stoll and her fellow volunteers to prepare the two teams for this year’s event.

“Volleyball Wales did trials in April whereby every eligible player – boys and girls of the right age group and the right nationality – were invited to try out. From the trials we selected a development squad.

“On the boys’ side, unfortunately we only had 11 boys trying out for the squad of 12, so we’re still struggling a bit on numbers.

“On the girls’ side we actually, for the first time ever, had more than 20 girls try out, which meant I had to reject a couple.”

Training camp in Germany

Those selected had regular weekend training sessions at the Sport Wales National Centre in Cardiff until the end of July when they attended a week-long training camp in Germany, benefiting from the hospitality of the local authorities in Stoll’s hometown of Guldental in western Germany.

“In Germany the state owns all the sporting facilities, so we can basically get the sports hall and the school where we stayed in to sleep for free.

“My mum was cooking for us, so from a costing point of view it is actually a lot cheaper than doing it in the UK and the children have the additional chance to actually go to different countries, experience a different culture.

“We’ve played against local teams to get some competition, we’ve done various trips to the Rhine sightseeing and they generally just enjoy the fact that they are away from home and can experience being in a different country as well.

“It’s a really, really good relationship,” Stoll says of the link between Volleyball Wales and Gultendal. “It’s the third time now and we’re very grateful to the local government in Germany that they give us the facilities for free and it’s fab. I wish it would be like this in the UK as well.”

The training camp enables the young Welsh volleyball players to progress much more quickly than they are normally able to, given the limited training opportunities currently available to them, for financial reasons, at home.

“It’s vital,” the head coach confirms. “Normally the children, because of the cost involved with hiring indoor facilities in the UK, we only can allow them to train once a week, which means the development is fairly slow.

“When we go away for the camp, we can focus on so many different things from training two or three times a day, also focusing on a lot more detailed skills training, which we normally don’t have time for in just a weekly two-hour slot.

“You have the social side of it; they learn to be away as a group, behave like a group when it comes to volleyball, but also from being on time, food, how does an athlete have to prepare with regards to their drink intake, food intake, sleep, etc.

“It’s kind of like a dress rehearsal for when we go to the School Games, so if anybody doesn’t quite know what is expected of them, we can iron out all the issues before we go to the big event.

“From that point of view, it’s very important, especially to athletes that haven’t been through the experience of a Schools Games before.”

The camp also helps to promote camaraderie between the girls’ and boys’ teams, who travel to Germany together. “It just creates a really nice team atmosphere for both sexes because in the School Games what they try and do is if the boys play and the girls don’t then they support each other.

“Obviously if they know each really well then that just helps build up the confidence of the players playing because we have more supporters in the crowd. It all works together.”

Stoll paid tribute to the enthusiasm of this year’s crop of players and is confident that they will remain in the sport as Volleyball Wales, which has only been in existence since 2009, seeks to expand its activities in the future.

“Our next aim is to start entering into national competitions outside of the School Games. So there’s the European Small Countries Division whereby we’ve just had some invites for next year’s qualification rounds.

“So we’re looking into that and we’re looking at resurrecting the under-23s now because we have a bigger pool of players to pick from.”

In its short existence, Volleyball Wales has concentrated mainly on junior coaching and recruiting young players for the School Games each year.

This will again be a major priority this season, although the formation of senior Wales men’s and women’s teams to compete at international level could be on the horizon sooner rather than later.

“It will probably be about five years, I would say, before it would be sensible entering at senior level because junior goes up to under-23s,” Stoll admits.

“So I think we will probably start at the under-23s as the oldest group and then, as I said, in about five years’ time, we should be able to start with the senior squads.

September 23, 2013

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