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Transforming physical activity in schools – Innovation in coaching in Czech Republic and Slovakia

June 15 2023

Innovative coaching programmes in the Czech Republic and Slovakia are promoting a new approach to physical activity in schools, bringing fun and participation to hundreds of children across both countries.

Transforming physical activity in schools – Innovation in coaching in Czech Republic and Slovakia

Trenéři ve školethe Coaches at School programme—launched its first pilot programme in 2019. It brings professional sports coaches into primary school physical education classes to raise activity levels, strengthen children’s physical and mental wellbeing, and bring joy and fun back into the classroom.

By connecting schools, coaches, teachers, municipalities, and governments, and by taking a sustainable and informed approach to children’s wellbeing, the Coaches at School programme is a perfect example of how sports initiatives can promote health, sustainability, and positive social outcomes.

Health, physical activity, and sustainability

Physical inactivity is a major global public health problem, and has wide-ranging impacts on chronic disease, mortality, social inequality, and the environment.

A growing body of evidence has shown that promoting increased physical activity does not only have a positive effect on health and wellbeing, but can also help to reduce inequalities, promote strong communities, and support climate action. A report published by Washington University in St Louis in 2021 found links between increased promotion of physical activity and eight of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including gender equality (SDG5), sustainable cities and communities (SDG11), and climate action (SDG13).

Providing access to good-quality, accessible physical activities, particularly for children and young people, is one way that governments, cities, and communities can help to promote good health and sustainability.

But thinking carefully about how to reach as wide a population as possible is important. Only channelling funding to sports clubs, for example, means that only those children who are already physically active, and who are already engaged in sport, reap the benefits, while children who are less active or have other access issues miss out.

This is a problem that Jan Macháčhek, former professional rugby player and one of the founders of the Coaches at School programme, wanted to address.

After a successful professional rugby career, he ran his own business and founded a rugby club in Prague. However, he began to realise that the club wasn’t reaching as many children as it could. ‘I realised that maybe the rugby club itself isn’t enough to help the population be healthy,’ he says.

In 2018, he met with Antonín Barák and Michal Prokeš, both youth coaches with a long experience in sport, who agreed that there were limits to the reach of sports clubs and federations in the Czech Republic. ‘They expressed the same concerns about kids in schools and how their physical activity is structured, which brought us to an idea,’ Macháčhek says. Together, the three founded the Coaches in School programme, and launched a pilot in Prague in 2019.

The Coaches in Schools programme

The founders of the programme identified gaps and issues in how physical education was delivered in primary schools in the Czech Republic.

Elementary schools, which teach children from the ages of six to 12, have two mandatory 45-minute physical education classes per week. Classes are taught by elementary school teachers, who teach across subjects and do not generally have any specialist training in physical activity. Schools often lack comprehensive facilities, and can be confined to indoor classes in small spaces for over half the year.

Given the limited time and facilities, lack of specialist training, and class sizes of up to thirty young children, teachers often face difficulties delivering classes that keep children active and engage them in a wide variety of sports.

To address this problem, Macháčhek and his co-founders had the idea to bring professional sports coaches in to co-teach one class a week. By assisting teachers and bringing their specialist knowledge of sports and coaching, they aimed to make classes more active, help children become more engaged, and improve access to different sports.

Four years on from the pilot launch in 2019, the programme is now active in over 160 schools in 25 municipalities in the Czech Republic. The programme is funded by municipalities, with support from the city of Prague and the National Sports Agency, as well as sponsorship from Česká spořitelna bank.

In 2021, former Slovak tennis elite Karol Kučera, now a member of Slovak parliament and a sports ambassador for the government, brought a team of experts to Prague to learn more about the programme. After the visit, he brought the Coaching in Schools programme to Slovakia. There are now programmes in 38 municipalities, including Bratislava and Trnava.

Crucially, the programme wants to focus on driving fun and play, and helping children to develop a positive, healthy relationship to sport and physical activity.

‘Our main focus isn’t the physiological development of the kids. The most important thing is the joy of physical activity,’ says Macháčhek. This can be a different approach to out-of-school sports clubs, which can have more of an emphasis on skill, talent, and competition. ‘We pay special attention to the kids who are not that gifted in terms of physical abilities, unlike in sports clubs, where we look for talent. In a school environment, our main aim is to put a smile on everyone’s face.’

Ten principles and coach training create quality lessons

The success of the programme is underpinned by a clear focus on providing informed, quality coaching, that works in collaboration with teachers and schools. Every element of the programme has been developed carefully.

Coaches are recruited from local sports clubs in the Czech Republic and through an individual recruitment process in Slovakia, and must have a coaching licence and experience working with children. Coaches undertake 30-40 hours of training and receive a licence for two years, renewable only after a one-day refresher training course.

The programme offers a wide range of sports, including sports as varied as athletics, beach volleyball, dancing, fencing, floorball, hip-hop, ice hockey, yoga, lacrosse, softball, table tennis, Thai boxing, volleyball, water polo, and wrestling. Coaches are on rotation, so that each school receives coaching in a different sport on a regular, often monthly, basis.

The programme coaches join for one of the two mandatory lessons a week. Classes are split into three areas: one run by the coach, one by the teacher, and one by the children. This encourages children to play, run their own games, and develop creativity and a connection to the sport, while increasing the amount of time spent active. Coaches and teachers wear colourful jerseys to help children recognise them immediately and to develop strong, positive relationships to coaches and teachers.

Critically, the programme is underpinned by ten principles that shape the direction of classes. These include involving all children, regardless of ability; involving the teacher in classes; and taking part in regular training. Another important principle is a focus on non-recruitment: coaches cannot recruit for their own sports clubs.

The real-world impact

The Coaches in Schools programme has grown hugely in reach over the past four years, and the classes have had a concrete impact in communities. Research conducted by Dr. Martin Dovičák and Dr. Iveta Cidhová from Cornelius University in Bratislava in 2021 showed that children’s attitudes to physical activity significantly improved after taking part in the programme. Interviews provided an insight into children’s feelings about sport and their new classes. ‘It was moving to hear their opinions, and not just data,’ says Macháčhek.

Teachers and parents also benefit. Feedback has shown that 95% of teachers see coaches as a big help, and appreciate collaboration and support. Meanwhile, many parents are glad that their children are increasingly enjoying taking part in sport. ‘Parents appreciate this very much,’ says Macháčhek. ‘When they hear from their kids that they like the physical activities, they are happy too.’

Coaches are also benefitting. ‘They report that they are improving themselves as well,’ Macháčhek says. ‘Especially by being in the school environment and working with those who aren’t usually focused on sport.’

Given the success of the programme, its lessons and approach may provide useful insights for coaches and teachers in other countries who are looking for ways to drive a positive, engaged approach to physical activity.

‘It would be great if we could all learn from other countries, and how they manage to link up the sports world with schools,’ says Macháčhek.

Although the programme continues to grow, with support from government, municipalities, and sponsors, the co-founders are clear that they want to take a sustainable approach to growth and expansion. ‘We are focused on quality, so we don’t expand at any cost,’ Macháčhek says. ‘We make sure that we have enough coaches, that they undergo the course, and that we can continue to evaluate them.’

As governments, schools and communities across the world think about how to help children build a positive and healthy relationship to sport, there are many important lessons that can be applied from the Coaches at School programme.

The emphasis on fun and play makes sure that no child is excluded, and keeps children engaged. Thorough, pedagogically-based training and sustainably growing the programme makes sure that lessons are of high quality. Attention to detail, like bright-coloured jerseys, can make children feel engaged and included. All these approaches benefit not just the children, but also parents, coaches, schools, and communities.

Sport and physical activity offer benefits that go beyond health and wellbeing, and for young people in particular sport can be a simple tool that has a huge impact. As we work towards building a healthy, sustainable world, programmes like Coaches at School will have an important part to play.

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    Read moreBethany White