Home Sports Heading to the Top Through an Elite Sports Pathway

Heading to the Top Through an Elite Sports Pathway

by Eddie Rayner

Many young sportsmen and women dream of turning professional; maybe even playing for their country one day. It takes a lot of work to make such dreams come true, however, as well as access to five-star facilities and the finest coaches. For when you see England rugby star Luke Cowan-Dickie finishing a driving maul with only 29 seconds of normal time left, it may seem like he has just shown up and produced the magic, but, make no mistake, it is the product of countless hours of practice.

The pathway to playing elite sports demands dedication, consistency and sacrifice. In the UAE this pathway is backed by some of the finest facilities and coaches, as Mike Wernham, Head of Secondary Sport at Jumeriah English Speaking School (JESS), Dubai, explains: “The UAE boasts many ex-international coaches across a number of sports; in my school alone, we have six international sportsmen and women, including three ex-professional rugby players – I often say we have the best PE department in the world!”

This level of expertise has propelled the UAE into a breeding ground for sports talent over the last 10 years, with the demand for professional-level coaching growing alongside it. Barrelhouse Rugby Academy, for instance, has grown from having three sessions a week in the local park to having a three-tier programme in the academy that takes the child from grassroots to squad-based games.

It is a different mindset that doesn’t focus on total control

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
‘It’s Just Football’ (IJF) is a UAE home-grown football academy with some of the region’s best UEFA A licensed coaches. It has a structured system in place to ensure that players enjoy success, balancing the various challenges in both their training and matches.

Molly Mayne

The programmes begin with ‘Future Players’ for children aged three to seven years, with the emphasis on encouraging players to fall in love with the game and have fun. The team at It’s Just Football believes that it’s essential that the players can explore and engage with the game with minimal structure and intervention at an early stage. Players then progress into either the academy or squads programme for youngsters aged eight to 18 years. The objective of the programmes is to have players at similar stages of their development, training and competing together. Regardless of the programme that players are in, they are guaranteed a regular games programme.

It’s Just Football’s Technical Director, Paul Collins said: “In terms of pathways for our players, through our vastly experienced staff, we have arranged many opportunities for them to be exposed to professional environments, whether that be games, training opportunities or trials. It’s extremely important to point out that although setting up trails for players at professional clubs is an option for players attending IJF, these opportunities will only be given to players deserving of that opportunity. The football landscape in Dubai is very different from that of the UK and the level of regular competition. That said, there are many talented players here in the UAE, not just at our academy, and we will continue to work and develop players to enjoy their football.”


Olympic Glory
If your child is interested in swimming, then you will have most likely heard of one of the UAE’s most well-established swimming academies, Hamilton Aquatics. Over the past 12 years, Hamilton Aquatics has achieved fantastic success at all levels, including an Olympic finalist. The team at Hamilton says it has been achieved by offering all ages and abilities a progressive squad structure that allows swimmers to develop continually to support their individual goals.

Lewis Burras with Hamilton Aquaitcs Director of Performacne, Ash Morris after claiming the Bronze medal at the European Championships

Ash Morris, Director of Swimming at Hamilton Aquatics shared details of their Development and Performance pathway: “The journey of an Elite Squad swimmer (15+ years old) at Hamilton Aquatics begins at a young age (7-10 years old) in the Development Pathway. This is where the fundamental skills are put in place with each swimmer, to enable them to progress long term. Not only are they working on skills in the pool, the coaches are also educating and motivating swimmers to have key behaviours within our club values, that we hope will give them some of the key mental characteristics that will allow them to progress and succeed in the future.

Hamilton Aquatics has achieved fantastic success at all levels, including an Olympic finalist

“If swimmers develop in the important areas and show positive signs of implementing both physical and mental skills on a daily basis, as well as a full training commitment, they will progress to our Performance Pathway which supports swimmers from 10 years old, all the way through to senior and university swimming. Our squad structure offers training opportunities in line with long-term athlete development that are progressive and will enable swimmers to improve each year. The Performance Pathway has a team of highly experienced coaches, assistant coaches and a full-time strength and conditioning coach. This, along with world-class facilities and partners, gives swimmers every opportunity to achieve their goals.”

Swimmers who have enjoyed particular success at Hamilton Aquatics include Molly Mayne, who has represented Ireland and won medals at the European Youth Olympics; Lewis Burras, who has represented Great Britain and has won medals at the European Juniors; and Velimir Stjepanovic, who has won double European Gold and made an Olympic Final for Serbia.

The UAE or Oversea?
There are success stories across all of the major sports in the UAE. One of the country’s leading swimming academies, for example, Hamilton Aquatics, has over the past 12 years achieved fantastic success at all levels, including an Olympic finalist. Meanwhile, in January 2020, three players from It’s Just Cricket were chosen to represent the Under-19 UAE national team at the Cricket World Cup in South Africa. One of those players was the talented Akasha Muhammed, who was part of the It’s Just Cricket Academy, progressing up through the ranks to represent the UAE.

Akasha Muhammed

It’s not all plain sailing for budding sports stars in the UAE though. For while the country excels when it comes to facilities and coaches, there is a shortage of top-level competition and enough quality teams to provide a regular challenge, particularly in team sports. “There is a smaller group of players across all sports,” says Mike Wernham. “So, while JESS has done incredibly well, being the first international school to make a Rosslyn Park final – the world’s largest rugby competition – we do see players leaving for schools and academies overseas. Everything is geared up for success in the UAE, including great referees and medical facilities, but to take it to the next level we need more competition, a 12-week fixture list, and a bit of investment. But it will come.”

Until that time, many of the really exceptional young players across many sports in the UAE, from cricket to rugby and netball to hockey, are choosing to move overseas to progress.

One of the favoured destinations to do this is Sedbergh School in England, a well-established, co-educational, full boarding school in the heart of Cumbria, which is renowned for its sporting achievements and opportunities. In the last 10 years, over 30 students have represented their country. However, an Elite Sports Pathway is only a small strand of the overall offer at Sedbergh School, even though there are many examples year on year of pupils exiting the school and starting life as young professional sportsmen and women.

Delivering Excellence
Sedbergh Coaches are both inspiring and knowledgeable in their field and have a proven track record in several sports of producing professional sports stars. Team and individual sports sessions from 6.00 am to 6.00 pm daily, seven days a week, include strength and conditioning, with medical support just part of the normal weekly routine. Furthermore, an unrivalled fixture list ensures all athletes are challenged on a weekly basis, and this is one of the big differences between the UAE and the UK. Sedbergh travels the length and breadth of the country to ensure it is competing against the very best schools at every year group and in many sports.

Nick Davey

Nick Davey, Director of Hockey at Sedbergh School, when asked what the Elite Sports Pathway looks like, explained: “It is the development of the whole pupil. Understanding that the rigours placed on elite athletes demand many different skills and abilities, all of which require development, in the gym, on the playing field and in the classroom.

“The pupils are kept extremely busy. In the hockey programme, we try to educate pupils around nutrition, physiology, teamwork, video analysis and wellbeing. Pupils are heavily invested in their own development. They must be organised and self-motivated. Early morning, lunch and evening practices are a weekly addition to the school day. This approach has resulted in the school currently having pupils playing National League Hockey alongside their school commitments. We have excellent relationships with these clubs, ensuring that the players’ workloads are balanced and that their individual development goals are understood and met in both environments.”

Simon Mulholland

Simon Mulholland, Director of Rugby at Sedbergh, says: “As a school, we have outstanding connections to elite rugby programmes all over the world. We have strong longstanding relationships with Newcastle Falcons and Sale Sharks, which are in our player catchment region. Since 2013 alone we have produced over 35 players who have signed professional Premiership, Pro 12, and Top 14 contracts. Over 40 players have become schoolboy rugby internationals, and four players have been named in the full England and Wales international squads since 2018. One player was selected in Eddie Jones’ England squad to tour South Africa whilst just 18 years of age and still at school.”

Martin Speight

Director of Cricket at Sedbergh School, Martin Speight, adds: “Cricket’s elite pathway runs through County age group teams funnelling into an Emerging Player’s Programme, with the best players then moving into the County Academy at under-18s. At Sedbergh, the cricket programme operates on a series of individual and group training sessions that run throughout the year, supported by an appropriate strength and conditioning programme and competition opportunities. Working in partnership with academy coaches at Yorkshire, Lancashire and Durham, using shared video analysis through platforms such as Hive, the elite players develop their technical and physical skills through hundreds of hours of training during the winter, largely at Sedbergh, avoiding wasted hours on car journeys and enabling the player to use the time for their academic development.”

Sedbergh travels the length and breadth of the country to ensure it is competing against the very best schools at every year group and in many sports

Sedbergh School has relationships with academies in various sports across the country, allowing it to work with clubs in locations where the pupil can continue with their studies at university whilst training full time as a professional athlete.

Reaching for Greatness
Children’s participation in sports across the UAE has grown in huge numbers over the last few years. This has been felled by fantastic facilities and passionate PE teachers and coaches, dictating that young people across the country have ample opportunity to enjoy sport, both during school in PE lessons and after school through various sports academies.

Both youngsters and parents are naturally delighted with this, with Matthew Rubin, whose son is in the Barrelhouse Rugby Under-9s squad, commenting: “As a rugby player, my whole life I always wanted my son to enjoy the game I love too. I had tried him at a few clubs before finding Barrelhouse. Coach Taylor and his team have relived my love for the game by watching the passion flow through my son. He started as an Under-6 player and now plays hooker for the Under-9 squad. I couldn’t be happier with his development and the level of coaching from the Barrelhouse team.”

Nevertheless, if Rubin Junior continues in his progress and has the ability to take his game to the highest level, moving to a school overseas is a genuine option. Nevertheless, the UAE is continuing to grow and develop, including its position in competitive sports. So while the level of competition needs to improve in team events, in activities such as golf, swimming, shooting, tennis and equestrian sports, the UAE is already the perfect place to be based if you’ve got one eye on the Olympics. In fact, whatever your game, there’s never been a better time to play competitive sports than in the UAE in 2021!