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Foreign coaches are a home-grown problem

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Mihir Bose | 15:38 UK time, Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Britain's lack of quality homegrown coaches is hardly a new story. Fabio Capello's £6m-a-year appointment was justified by the Football Association on the grounds that he was truly world-class, a clear implication that no Englishman was worthy of the label.

The Premiership is in thrall to foreign coaches but football is hardly unique; nearly all this country's major sports have had foreign coaches.

When Andy Murray wanted a coach he went Stateside and grabbed Brad Gilbert, when the England cricket team was at its nadir it was rescued by a Zimbabwean, Duncan Fletcher.

All this could be justified on the grounds that, in international sports, movement of coaches between countries is not that uncommon - and other countries have benefited from the expertise of British coaches.

In 2004, Greece's unknown footballers unexpectedly won the European Championship coached by the German Otto Rehhagel, beating a Portuguese team coached by a Brazillian, Felipe Scolari, in the final, which had previously beaten an England team coached by a Swede.

Englishman Tony Pickard contributed to the tennis success of Stefan Edberg and the Sweden football team won the 1948 Olympics gold beating England 6-3 at Wembley coached by Yorkshireman George Raynor.

But if coaches at the top level can and do move it is entirely different when a country does not have professional coaches and relies on hope and prayer to wing it purely through using amateurs.

This is the great danger facing this country. In the Olympics, Team GB hopes to rise from 10th in the 2004 Athens medals table to fourth by London 2012, and by 2016 become the best in the world.

But a study by Sportnation, a sports think-tank, suggests that there are just not enough professional coaches to justify such hopes.

The report, 'Are We Missing The Coach for 2012', says that in performance athletics there are as few as 12 salaried coaches in the UK. Of the 1.2m to 1.5m sports coaches working in the UK, 69% are unpaid volunteers.

Rafael Benitez and Arsene Wenger

Commissioned by Loughborough University, researchers conducted interviews with the performance directors and senior representatives in 12 major sports - athletics, badminton, cricket, football, gymnastics, hockey, netball, rowing, swimming, tennis, triathlon and volleyball.

Steve Cram, chairman of the Sportnation panel, expressed real concern about the implications of the findings, saying: "If we don't act now to stem the endemic culture of volunteerism in UK sport, we may have already missed the coach for sporting success at London 2012."

Talking to me at Langdon School in East Ham, a school which has developed a system of using professional coaches, Cram told me how this country has failed to shake off its 'Chariots of Fire' amateur traditions.

Our national sports rely on a 'culture of volunteerism' which creates a self-perpetuating social exclusion cycle wherein it is mainly white, middle-class men who can afford to volunteer their time, leading to an absence of role models for sportspeople from other groups.

The result, says Cram, is that in his own sport, athletics, where equal numbers of males and females compete there are far more male coaches far than female.

One performance director, who was interviewed for the report claimed: "My sport is basically a white middle-class sport, so if a lot of [athletes in this sport] come from that background, then they're going to become coaches with the same middle-class values and background."

Another added; "If you keep on recruiting from within, you just get more of the same."

The lack of remuneration and clear career progression within coaching also risks a brain-drain of promising young British coaches to other professions, creating a reliance on importing foreign coaches to elite positions in UK sport.

The Sportnation panel would like to see a national debate about the right balance between volunteers and professionals in the existing coaching system.

It sees schools as the best mechanisms from which to reach the greatest number of children most efficiently with professional sports coaching.

The panel recommended an immediate investment in 13,600 full-time-equivalent professional coaches spread across 400 school-based 'multi-sports hubs' - 34 paid sports coaches per 'hub' - would make an immediate difference to participation and performance sport in local communities.

These 'hubs' would interact with clubs, coaching centres and national governing bodies in these communities.

The panel also wants untrained volunteers recognised as 'sports helpers', not coaches, to enable clear career progression from grass-roots to elite level sports.

All panel members agreed that the issue of 'volunteerism' in UK sport needs to be resolved urgently in the next 12 months - ahead of national coaching recruitment targets being set by Sportscoach UK in April 2009.

For that to happen, as Cram admits, the sporting culture of this country has to change. Or, to borrow the phrase used by football not long before England appointed Capello, have a root-and-branch review.

From the evidence of football that is easier said than done and will take real investment.

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