From Lewis to Lerwick, young people from every community in Scotland are given the support they need to participate and progress in sport.
In some parts of Scotland, geography presents a significant challenge due to the cost and viability of travel, so how do aspiring athletes from the Highland region – and particularly the islands – overcome such barriers to keep their development on track?
Scotland’s world class sporting system is designed to cater for everyone in Scotland, and programmes such as the Island Athlete Travel Award Scheme and the Highlands & Islands Performance Development Plan (PDP) make it easier for young athletes to ensure their performance levels are not unduly affected by where they live.
The pathways now available to people across the region are a result of collaboration between local authorities and sportscotland through the Highlands & Islands Regional Leadership Group.
We talk to an athlete from Orkney and a coach from the Western Isles to find out how an integrated system enables people from any community in Scotland to have world class ambitions and expectations.
Mia McAllister | Swimmer
“I started swimming at the age of eight and have progressed to the point where I competed at the British Championships in March 2018.
“I live in Orkney, and living on an island does come with a lack of opportunities and coaches that are readily accessible to swimmers living on the mainland. It can be difficult to feel connected with the rest of Scotland’s swimming community.
“On the other hand, living on an island opens up opportunities that would not be available to those on the mainland. I had the opportunity to represent Orkney at the Island Games in 2017 in Gotland, Sweden, and this is a great way to experience higher-standard international competitions.
“I have also managed to overcome some challenges of living on an island by making contact with other coaches who have helped me develop my day-to-day training sessions, along with providing support.”
Funding for travel
“The Island Athlete Travel Award Scheme reduces the cost of travel required to attend competitions or training camps on the mainland. It has also enabled me to spend time in Shetland training with the Shetland Amateur Competitive Swimming Club, led by a coach who provides me with constant everyday support in developing my swimming.
“This scheme makes it a lot easier to attend events and grasp opportunities that are delivered on the mainland.”
“The PDP provides me with regular strength-and-conditioning sessions and talks and conferences on a wide variety of topics, such as nutrition and mental strength strategies, all aimed at developing me and the other PDP athletes towards high performance levels.
“In particular, the strength and conditioning sessions have helped build my strength remarkably, which integrates well with the work I do in the pool, building power into my strokes.
“Being an athlete on a programme run by the sportscotland institute of sport connects me with others on the mainland who are able to aid my development as an athlete.”
Transition to university
“I will be going to university on the mainland in September 2018 and I have received support from sportscotland (Highlands and Islands) which will be vital in helping my transition.
“I’ve made contacts through sportscotland with swimming and PDP coaches I can work with when I start university. I have also had the opportunity to take part in group sessions where sportscotland have provided Performance Lifestyle expertise, discussing aspects of how to help my integration into university and guiding me in making some of my own contacts.”
Euan Macleod | Coach | Hub officer
“Six or seven years ago I was working as an outdoor sports facilities development officer in Stornoway and I, along with two others, was given the opportunity by the sportscotland institute of sport to become a strength-and-conditioning coach under the PDP.
“I had a mentor, John Coogans, who came up every two weeks and took me through the process of becoming recognised as an institute S&C coach.
“We started working with two golfers and the PDP has grown over the years with more and more athletes becoming involved.”
“In the Western Isles we have community sport hubs at Ness, Back, Stornoway, Isle of Harris, Linaclate and South Uist, and Barra is under development. I look after the northern isles and Kevin Morrison takes care of the southern isles, and three years ago I was offered the role of community sport hubs officer.
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“I’m able to balance the two roles and there are some aspects that work quite nicely together. With the hub I’m trying to develop now in Harris, they want to improve their coaching infrastructure.
“They’ve got lots of kids and lots of volunteers, so we’ve put on some workshops to help new coaches develop their talent ID skills and design strength-and-conditioning programmes.”
“There are six athletes in my PDP group in Stornoway and they now come into the gym at 7.30 in the morning. Initially we tried to do S&C sessions after school but it wasn’t working because the sessions were not allowing time for correct development.
“We asked the athletes if they could come in before school and they loved the idea. The kids absolutely love it.
“Even during the school holidays in summer, when I have a bit more flexibility, we asked if they wanted to do a later session and they said no. One of the kids even comes from Ness, which is 45 minutes away, twice a week. And the sports coaches love it because it doesn’t eat into their time later in the day.
“There has been a knock-on effect. I coach the Western Isles women’s football team and they started coming in to train at 7.30am, and then the men’s team did it and then the junior team decided to start training at the same time.
“This now happens all year round, whatever the weather. We have our sports centre in Stornoway with the athletics track and we also have access to another gym at Griarnan, which is a bit warmer.”
It takes dedication … and funding
“We often talk about trying to replicate what happens on the mainland and it isn’t always possible. But if you take the example of a Stirling University swimmer, they are training 27 hours a week. Kara Hanlon was still an island athlete this year and we had her up to 21 hours a week, on top of school and a Saturday job.
“Kara very nearly qualified for the Commonwealth Games as an island athlete on the PDP, and that proved that we can do this.
“Another thing that has been brilliant has been the Island Athlete Travel Awards Scheme. Travel grants of £1,500 have been brilliant in offsetting the costs incurred by families in supporting their children as elite athletes.”
“Our links with clubs are strong through the hubs and we have a lot of club coaches attending our workshops. We are working all the time towards an integrated sporting system and making progress with the way we connect with schools, especially in rural areas.
“One of the things in our favour is that every two years we can send a team to the NatWest Island Games, which works like an undercurrent in that if athletes can’t quite make it to elite level, there is that secondary level that enables us to keep participation levels high.”
Tributes to the system
Chris Hildrey, sportscotland Highlands & Islands regional performance manager, said: “The PDP influences the local performance pathway infrastructure throughout the Highlands & Islands as well as strengthening local performance environments.
"The programme provides direct delivery and ongoing personnel development for athletes, service providers and coaches in H&I.
“Families living on the islands trying to achieve quality sporting progression work extremely hard to ensure that the right training and competition opportunities are accessible so we are delighted that the Athlete Travel Award scheme offers support that makes a real difference.
”The quality of progression and local delivery on the Islands through both programmes is testament to the commitment and support from our partners and the local sporting workforce. We look forward to continuing to reinforce and grow the programmes to ensure that local needs are recognised and where possible resourced appropriately."
Garry Burton, sport and leisure service manager at Orkney Islands Council, said: “PDP has created an on-island system that provides athletes with access to services/ training and coaching that they would otherwise only be able to access on the mainland.
“Given the geographical location of Orkney, travel costs for athletes to attend training and competition on the mainland are a significant barrier to their continued development.
“However, with the introduction and roll-out of the Athlete Travel Award, performance athletes from Orkney can now receive financial support towards travelling to competition or coaching events, and therefore reducing quite a significant barrier to the potential development of Orkney’s athletes.”
Find out more
Discover more about the sportscotland institute of sport here.