Alternative sports


Offering secondary students a choice of traditional and non-traditional PE is helping foster more positive attitudes to sport, says world number one inline skater Jenna Downing.

Visiting schools across the North West in my role as an athlete mentor, one thing is clear – PE is changing, and it is for the better.

Gone are the days when traditional sports were the only PE option, today schools are embracing the diversity of their student bodies by offering a wide variety of sporting options to suit every taste.

In my visits to schools over the past academic year I have been astounded by the range of sports on offer having witnessed students participating in horse-riding, zumba classes, ice-skating and even ultimate frisbee! Having made a career out of a non-traditional sport myself, it is fantastic to see schools being more creative about their sporting offer and I am positive this is going a long way towards instilling long-term positive attitudes to sport among students.

I discovered inline skating at the tender age of seven but never had the chance to share my talent for skating and progression within the sport with my fellow students because skating was not on the curriculum.

Fortunately, I now have the chance to bring inline skating into schools and use my experience as an athlete mentor to inspire students to try many different sports and find one they can become passionate about.

I am particularly passionate about introducing more unusual sports into schools. While I enjoyed playing netball and being on the athletics team at my secondary school, I recognise that not all students enjoy the sports traditionally associated with PE and many relish the opportunity to try something different.

I am one of 48 athlete mentors for the Sky Sports Living for Sport initiative (delivered in partnership with the Youth Sport Trust) who visit secondary schools across the UK. 

My contemporaries are both retired and competing athletes from across the sporting spectrum. We have athlete mentors who competed at this summer’s Olympics and who are currently competing in the Paralympics, alongside a range of leading athletes who pursue less common sports such as skate-boarding, Thai-boxing and bobsleigh.

The aim of our visits is to use our sporting experiences to deliver the “Six Keys to Success” which have been developed in partnership with the British Athletes Commission to improve students’ all-round life-skills.

We run through these in the classroom before putting them into practice in a practical sport session. The six keys to success are: mental toughness, hunger to achieve, people skills, sports and life knowledge, breaking barriers, and planning for success.

I usually begin my sessions with some ice-breakers and a question and answer forum where the students and I share our different experiences of sport. The students are always very responsive to this and are particularly interested to hear about how I turned professional at just 12-years-old.

This is followed by a practical inline skating session which is great as it levels the playing field for youngsters. As an individual sport, common worries that can spoil students’ PE experiences are removed. There is no being picked last for a team, derided for letting a goal in or coming last in the race when you are learning inline skating.

Instead, my focus is on getting all of the students up on the skates and moving with confidence, something which often causes much hilarity. Once everyone is happy on their skates, I teach the students some basic skills and a few tricks that they can take away and develop in their own time.

It is a great confidence booster for students to discover they can skate after just one session. Indeed, at the end of my mentoring sessions when I run through with the students what they have learned in terms of both sport and life-skills, around 50 per cent say they want to take up inline skating and challenge me for the world number one spot!

It is fantastic to see such enthusiasm for sport emanating from a half-day mentoring session and, with research commissioned by the Youth Sport Trust revealing that more than a third of parents today are impressed with the variety of sports on offer to their offspring, I hope more schools will continue to embrace non-traditional sports in PE lessons.

The more passion and sporting inspiration we can deliver while we have a captive secondary school audience, the more likely today’s students are to grow into healthy adults with lifelong positive attitudes towards sport and active lifestyles. That surely, can only be a good thing.

Case study: Hartismere School: Wave-boarding (pictured)

Sam Beveridge, director of PE and sport at Hartismere School in Suffolk, ran a Sky Sports Living for Sport project based around wave-boarding, a form of street surfing which is a cross between surfing, snow-boarding and skate-boarding.

Sam discovered this unusual sport when she lived in Bournemouth and after moving to Suffolk thought it would be a great new sport for her pupils to try. 

She told SecEd: “I chose a group of 15 year 7 to  9 pupils who were disengaged with school sport and used the programme to build their confidence and self-esteem. 

“Wave-boarding was the focus of the project as it is an unusual sport and it meant that the pupils all started on the same level. 

“It is also a sport that requires teamwork, despite not being a team game, and is relatively easy to learn which provided quick reward for the pupils and maintained their motivation. The aim of our project is to create a promotional DVD for the sport and the pupils are thrilled to be part of something so exciting.”

Dearne Advanced Learning Centre: Boccia

Ben Horbury, PE teacher at the Dearne Advanced Learning Centre in Rotherham, created a programme designed to promote confidence in leadership for a group of year 9 pupils. The aim was for these pupils to learn the skills needed to be able to lead primary school pupils in sports lessons.

Ben said: “In order to build confidence in these pupils and develop their leadership skills I decided to use non-traditional sports to encourage them out of their comfort zone and to try something new. These included trampolining, volleyball, boxing and boccia, a game for disabled athletes.

He continued: “The pupils were excited to try some different activities and are really progressing well, becoming more confident in their abilities to lead others.”

  • Jenna Downing, pictured above, is an athlete mentor for Sky Sports Living for Sport, a free secondary school initiative delivered in partnership with the Youth Sport Trust. Sign up for free at


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