Try this one out: Can you balance standing on your weaker leg for 30 seconds with your eyes closed?
Many people probably cannot, because they haven’t built up the balance and coordination.
But, if they started slowly, just balancing on their stronger leg for 10 seconds, eyes open, and gradually strengthened their skills, they could find that they achieve a lot more, and also feel the confidence that comes along with it.
This is the type of approach to teaching fitness and sports to children that a native of The Rower is aiming to spread around Ireland.
Brendan Bolger, a native of The Rower who worked in the UK for several years but returned to Ireland a couple of years ago, started a branch of FUNdamental Success Ltd (www.fundamentalsuccess.ie) in County Kilkenny 18 months ago and is hoping to hold workshops around the South East in the coming months. The idea is to work with coaches, teachers and parents and to advise them on a method that focuses on “the whole child” rather than one sport-specific area.
“My background was that, like most Kilkenny people, I was absolutely sport-mad. I don’t think I would have got through school if it weren’t for sport,” said Mr Bolger, who hurled with the Kilkenny minors and was on the 1993 team that won the All-Ireland.
After completing a degree in sports science and physical education in the UK and later a post-grad in post-primary teaching, he went on to teach PE and sport in a UK primary school.
“The job description for me was to get PE and sport activities up and running at the school, because it was basically nonexistent at the time,” he said. Over time, he helped to build up the sporting activity in the school, so that there were “sports morning, noon and night.” This included lunch-time activities and after-school sports, such as gymnastics, badminton, tennis, table tennis, soccer, cricket, rounders. “Anything a child wanted, it was there for them, and 80% of the students were getting at least four hours of sport a week at the school,” he said.
But around four years ago he attended a development course that utterly changed the course of his teaching method in working with children. “If ever you might have been becoming complacent or arrogant, a day in this course would put you back in your box,” he said of the course, called Fun for Everyone.
“There were so many things I was taking for granted about child development – assuming that children had certain movement patterns in terms of their ability and coordination,” he said. “We were doing coaching sometimes that put children into games and environments where they didn’t have the skills to succeed – and if children don’t have the capabilities, they are going to fail.”
“A huge thing,” he said, “was about setting challenges for children that were achievable for them so every child felt included. We presumed that children could hop, skip and all of that, but back in the school, there were a number of children who weren’t effective skippers. And if you are not able to hop, you are not able to skip or jump – there is a knock-on effect. And to be able to jump, you have to be able to balance on one foot. So it’s all about breaking down all of the skills and bringing it back to a basic level.”
It is this approach that he is hoping to share all around Ireland as, he said, “Ireland is crying out for something like this.”
Part of the aim is physical, Mr Bolger said, and part is mental and emotional.
Physically, the method works on children’s core stability, which will help to prevent injuries and therefore enable people to stay involved with sports for longer, and teach skills that are adaptable to any sport.
Children are suffering from injuries at younger and younger ages, Mr Bolger said, because sport-specific training involves only certain muscles, and over time that creates an imbalance.
It was true even for his own training over the years. “I was one-sided in my own hurling and at 23 or 24 I was getting serious injuries, due to bad practice from a young age,” he said.
In later years, its effect was still there when attempting some of the challenges set out in the FUNdamental Success method. “When it came to me standing on my weaker foot for 30 seconds with my eyes closed, I couldn’t do it. I did serious ligament damage in my 20s and obviously that weakness was still there,” he said. (He can do it now though, having built up his skills step by step, of course.)
Mentally, the approach has an effect on a person’s confidence and self-esteem too, he said.
“Research has found that, with children going into secondary school, lots of them had made up their minds that they were going to opt out of sport in life,” Mr Bolger said, because “it had been a negative experience for them.”
By giving children goals that they can achieve, and then having them achieve those goals and progress to the next level, it helps to get rid of their fear of failure, he said.
For example, he referred to one student who was struggling academically and had poor coordination and concentration levels.
“This child had such low self-esteem that he never asked or answered questions in class because he didn’t want the attention,” Mr Bolger said. Working through the FUNdamental Success programme, however, the student was able to progress through the goals and find that he could in fact succeed.
“This child isn’t yet academically caught up, but he is attempting more challenging work, and he will have a go at it – he will ask for help and he will answer questions, even if they are wrong,” Mr Bolger said.
Often, he said, “those who have poor coordination are the ones who are left out, and there are social implications of that.”
This is one reason that, in addition to training coaches and teachers, FUNdamental Success also works with parents.
“Many children have opted out of sports because of not feeling included, and some parents will then pass that on to their children,” he said. “For some people who were never given a chance, they are more than happy for their children not to participate because they don’t want to see their child go through what they went through.”
But the results of helping children to become more fit and agile step by step can break that cycle, he said. “I know it makes a world of difference to children, and the difference it has made to some of the children is unbelievable,” he said, including “a willingness to persevere with things rather than giving up because it’s too difficult.”
Throughout the process, the emphasis is on fun, so that the children will want to do it themselves and be independent learners, Mr Bolger said. “It’s a life skill, really.”