THE squeak of trainers on wooden floor, the smell of sweat on brows and flushed cheeks, the hush of breath as a ball soars upwards, the silence filled with a resounding cheer as it falls, swishing through the net. . .
It’s just another Sunday afternoon in Holyrood High School and a training session by the City of Edinburgh Basketball Club. The difference at this one, though, is only girls are allowed.
In fact, it’s more proscriptive than that: only girls from primaries five to seven are invited along to give basketball a whirl, because they, the club believes, are at the right age to fall in love with the game of hoops and backboards, dribbling and dunking – although it’s something they are unlikely to do if boys are involved.
For the past three years 40 girls – numbers are limited – have been able to attend these intensive training workshops in the hope that they will keep on playing through high school and into adulthood.
Not only to keep fit, but also to ensure that women’s basketball in Edinburgh – and beyond – has a future.
“We offer taster sessions at primary schools on the east side of Edinburgh, feeder schools for Holyrood and Castlebrae and Portobello, reaching around 300 girls, and they can apply to come to the Only Girls Allowed sessions,” says Clare Mackle, City of Edinburgh BC’s membership secretary.
“It’s a shame we can only take 40 girls, and we are totally oversubscribed, but those who don’t make it are offered the chance to come to the club free of charge for coaching until the summer holidays.
“We believe there is a great appetite for team sports in young girls, but they seem to fall away from it because some sports, such as basketball, are seen as being more for boys and the girls don’t want to compete with that.
“We found that some of the schools did have after-school basketball clubs but boys vastly outnumbered the girls, so it’s great to be able to show them it’s not just a boys game.”
Getting – and keeping – young girls involved in sport is a major headache for society.
Research has shown that girls are less active than boys, particularly in adolescence and that the proportion of girls taking part in sport more than twice per week declines from 61 per cent in the eight to 11 age group to 46 per cent in the 12 to 15 age group.
Yet the benefits of taking part in sport and physical activity are obvious – positive outcomes on health and wellbeing mentally, as well as physically.
The Scottish Government has ploughed money into action plans drawn up by Sportscotland, such as Active Girls and Fit for Girls, programmes aimed at secondary school age youngsters to develop activities which will keep them active.
In Edinburgh, the council launched Pathways into Sport, offering sports clubs grants of up to £1000 to try and encourage people into activity. It was this scheme which has funded the Only Girls Allowed basketball project.
Clare adds: “The first year we ran it there were fewer than six women’s teams playing at the under-18 level, so there weren’t enough girls playing, and for those who were, they weren’t getting the same amount of competition as boys’ teams.
“We realised we had to do more as a club to get more girls involved from a young age if the sport was to survive and thrive. And it’s working because we’ve now got some girls from that first year playing at under-16 level so it’s definitely feeding through and working on that level.
“But we also hope that it has inspired other girls to go on to try other sports and maybe join other clubs because they’ve got to try it out in a safe and fun environment.”
The 40 girls playing on the courts certainly don’t have to look far for inspiration.
Rose Anderson, a former Portobello pupil who is now a professional player in England and played in the 2012 Olympics for Great Britain, is involved in the school taster sessions, while current Scottish captain Emma Findlay, pictured left, gets hands-on at the Sunday sessions.
Emma, 27, who works as a physiotherapist at the Royal Infirmary, says: “There was nothing like this when I was young, that’s why it’s so great. I got into basketball because of my dad. He was travelling and working in Boston and got interested in the game, though he never played, then when he came back here he and Tony Szifris got together and got involved with the City of Edinburgh club so I’ve really been involved with basketball for a long time.
“Of course, most girls don’t have that, so we try to tell them that not only is a great sport and keeps you fit, but you feel part of a team and when you win things with others it’s a great feeling.
“I know lots of girls who started basketball but dropped out because they did begin to think of it as a male-orientated sport – that’s why this programme is fantastic.”
Clare adds: “Having people like Emma along really does make a big difference in helping young girls see that it’s cool to play sport and that there’s a future in it if you’re good. But hopefully it just gives them the confidence to join teams at school or clubs.”
During the first week of the scheme the girls are given basketballs so they can take them home to practice.
“There’s really nothing like arriving here at Holyrood and seeing girls advancing on the place from every direction all with a ball under their arm – it’s brilliant,” says Clare.
They also get a specially branded T-shirt with the slogan “Yeah I play like a girl” splashed across the front. This year they were even treated to a trip to Stirling to watch Scotland’s under-14 girls squad compete in an international game for added inspiration.
One young player, ten-year-old Poppy Gibb-Kenny, a pupil at Towerbank Primary, is already hooked – though she says she was “pretty sporty” already.
She adds: “When they came into my school and I saw them play it was brilliant and I got my dad to apply for this for me. I play hockey already but I really liked the idea of basketball and I think I might like to join a club.
“It’s definitely not just for boys, any girl can play sport.”
Grace Fletcher, 12, is another Towerbank pupil, but is about to start at Portobello High. She, like Poppy, seems delighted with the sport, as are her parents.
Mum Kate says: “It’s been brilliant. We’ve now got a hoop up outside the house. And as it’s been part of the transition to high school it’s made her feel much more comfortable about taking it up when she’s there.
“She’s quite sporty and already does karate but this is a great team sport and I think she’s at a really important age when it comes to getting involved in sport – and staying involved.”
Head coach of the City of Edinburgh under-12s squads is Janie McBrierty, and she oversees the Sunday sessions.
She says: “We were getting young players coming through but they were all boys so getting girls involved is really important and we just hope they keep it up – and I’m seeing some come through to me at the club already.
“I do think sporty girls will get involved with clubs, but if they’re more timid this gives them a space to try it out without feeling they’re competing with boys, it gives them the confidence to take it on and keep at it.
“It’s vital that girls get involved in sport – to find one that they like and to stick with it. It’s good for them, and for all of us if we end up with healthier adults.”
A slam dunk, you might say.
• For more information on City of Edinburgh Basketball Club visit www.cityofedinburghbasketball.net.
A sporting success
BASKETBALL is not the only sport encouraging girls to get involved in the hope that once hooked they’ll continue playing through high school and beyond.
Netball is having a resurgence thanks to a concerted effort by Netball Scotland.
Last year, ahead of the World Youth championships in Glasgow the organisation launched a national school engagement programme to encourage schools to get involved with the sport – and more than 350 signed up to be affiliated to Netball Scotland.
The Youth Sports Trust and sportscotland have also launched Active Girls and Fit for Girls, two programmes which aim to bring about change in high schools and girls’ participation in sport and physical activity.
The Better Movers and Thinkers initiative will also be rolled out across Scotland before February next year as part of the Commonwealth Games legacy, aiming to ensure that all children are given at least two hours of PE time a week.
The model has been developed by former teachers Thomas Dowens and John French and Edinburgh University PhD student Andy Dalziell.
Dowens, who is on secondment from his role as director of coaching at Scottish Volleyball Association believes many children are put off sport became some require skills too demanding for their age and developmental stage.