Claire McDonnell (pictured right) is Partnership Manager at South Cambs School Sports Partnership, a role in which she has seen firsthand how tennis can be used as a tool to engage pupils, build confidence and improve behavior.
Earlier this year, Claire was responsible for bringing the Tennis Foundation’s ‘Beyond the Baseline’ project to Comberton Village College in Cambridgeshire to work with a challenging group of 14 boys who had often been on report or excluded. The end result would see the group organise a brilliant tennis festival for 60 local pupils, and amaze their teachers with their development over the course of the sessions.
Set up with the intention of engaging young people who are struggling with behaviour or academic performance, the positive impact of Beyond the Baseline has been felt at schools and colleges across the country, and the programme at Comberton proved to be no different.
The initiative is run by the Tennis Foundation in partnership with the Youth Sport Trust, and uses tennis and inspirational tennis mentors to nurture pupils’ aspirations and put them on the path to achieving them.
The programme sees one of the 15 Beyond the Baseline mentors – current or former professional tennis players – visit schools over a two or three-month period. The mentor works with the project group to plan, organise and deliver a tennis project, with the aim of helping them develop four key employability and life skills: personal, social, creative and thinking, while having fun and working with others.
The mentor for the pupils at Comberton Village College was Jade Windley, an ex-professional tennis player who won three ITF singles titles and 16 ITF doubles titles in her career.
After bringing Jade and the Beyond the Baseline programme to Comberton, Claire has revealed the benefit that the scheme has had on the school, and particularly the 14 boys that took part.
“They were quiet to start off with and wouldn’t really talk to each other, but through the work that Jade did with them, they started to work and communicate with each other,” Claire explained.
— South Cambs SSP (@SouthCambsSSP) 11 January 2018
“The first sessions we had with them, they came up with the idea to run a festival. I was a little apprehensive because it was for 60 children, and I wasn’t sure how it was going to come together, but they got really enthused by it.”
“Jade did some practical sessions with them to develop their own tennis skills, and then we did some where they practiced delivering sessions to others where you could definitely see their communication skills improve.
The culmination of Jade’s sessions with the group saw them organize a tennis festival for local children. Over 60 pupils picked up tennis rackets and got involved with the festival put on by the Beyond the Baseline students.
Seeing the group deliver their event even brought a tear to one of the form tutors, who said she had never seen one particular boy act with such confidence and maturity.
“It’s been really positive for us, and when the boys were running the festival during the final visit at the end of the academic year, we had a couple of senior leaders and form tutors come to watch and they were amazed at what the boys were doing,” Claire said.
“We were keen for them to come and see the skills the boys were demonstrating. I didn’t know them until I came to the first session, so we wanted to show the impact of working with the students to the staff.
“They saw the value of the programme. It’s quite staff-intensive from our point of view, and it takes a bit of organising, but it’s definitely worth it because of the impact it has on the kids.
“We provided feedback forms to the boys after and they were asked how Beyond the Baseline made them feel. A lot of them spoke about how it made them feel more confident, and that it helped them talk to a group of people and make new friendships.”
The influence of working alongside a former professional tennis player was also brought up in the boy’s feedback forms, and Claire was thankful for Jade’s help through the programme.
“Jade was brilliant,” she exclaimed. “She was really accommodating and keen to come in, and spent the whole day at the school – she wanted to help however she could.
“On her second visit, she also spent time with some A Level students talking about elite sport and different training programmes.
“She was really inspiring for the boys, and they all said that they really enjoyed working with a professional tennis player.”
Amazing to see our #beyondthebaseline boys in action delivering a tennis festival to 60 Primary children this afternoon @Comberton_VC_PE @TennisFndation @MeridianPrimary #lifeskills #proud @jade_windley @YouthSportTrust pic.twitter.com/f5YiJXzMU5
— South Cambs SSP (@SouthCambsSSP) 15 March 2018
Despite none of them being avid tennis players before the project started, many of the boys enjoyed it so much they have continued their involvement with the sport, with half of them helping at future Year 3 & 4 School Games Tennis events.
“At the end, I mentioned that I was running a school tennis competition in the summer and asked if anyone would like to help” Claire said. “There were seven or eight who helped in the end and it was positive that they wanted to carry on volunteering in the sport.”
To read more about Beyond the Baseline, click here.