Friday, 13 August 2010

The Ups and Downs of Youth Development Schemes

90s Darting hero Rod Harrington has launched a PDC Youth Development Scheme recently, which has set the darts world talking.

Harrington says that he wants to discover the next generation of talent that can topple and succeed Phil Taylor - to maintain the standards set by Phil Taylor in the post-Power era.

This sounds highly laudable, and on one level it is; giving talented youngsters the chance to shine in their chosen sport is always good. More and better darts players is without doubt a good thing, and will be essential if darts is to keep growing and progressing as a sport.

Call it silly if you like, but I can't help feeling a little uneasy though.

One of the things that makes Phil Taylor so compelling as a sportsman is the fact that we know he began his career making bog handles in a pottery factory; that he began playing darts by throwing in pubs and clubs; that Eric Bristow gave him ten grand to focus on darts, which Phil repaid both in cash and by becoming the world's best darter.

Likewise other darts players; they're so compelling as sportsmen because they are real people. It is easy to imagine having a pint with Terry Jenkins, Ronnie Baxter or Barney because they began their careers playing with their mates in pubs and clubs. Professional darts players, no matter how talented, are the same as us. Even Phil Taylor is one of us.

The best professional footballers or cricketers, for example, just do not give off the same vibe. Many of them (not all, but many) were spotted at primary school. They had special coaching; they went to academies and training camps; they knew they were the best, knew they were going to be professional sportsmen and were ruthless; they played their hearts out for the talent scouts. They've never had ordinary jobs. Even when the football superstars are signing autographs or embarrassing themselves in nightclubs there is still a vast gulf between them and the fans, in a way which does not exist with even the very best darts players.

Worse, the system of pushing kids through elite sporting academies and teaching them that they are born to be the best can produce the kind of arrogant, tantrummy and self-obsessed prima donnas who truly believe that they have a separate superstar destiny and thereby get right up the fans' noses.

Professionalism is one thing, but darts is partly so great to watch because the players have real lives which are similar to ours. In encouraging professionalism in young darts players, the powers that be must not lose sight of the spontaneity, the honest and unpolished reality that makes darts players so much fun to watch.

Take an example from snooker, which is a stage or two further advanced along the path from amateur heroes to big-money professionals than darts is currently: Ding Jun Hui. I'm sure in his own way he's a perfectly nice young man, but there's something about his mechanical dedication and professionalism which is just deeply boring. Whenever I see him, I get the feeling he spent his entire childhood playing snooker in a bamboo hut with a man slapping him and shouting "didi mao!" every time he missed a pot (for those who have not seen the Deer Hunter, do).

The story of Alex Higgins, who played snooker in local pubs and clubs, tried his hand at being a jockey, and then decided to become a pro snooker player will always be more compelling than a (hypothetical) child superstar who picked up a cue at two, was coached from the age of 4, won every youth trophy going, turned pro at 16 and got signed on by Terry Griffiths. Why? Because Alex Higgins (may he rest in peace) was a unique character, whereas the equally talented youngster who's been through a snooker academy and youth tournament mill is the product of a system.

Such rigorous coaching and training in young players can often produce glittering match play, but far less frequently produces the Alex Higginses, George Bests and Jocky Wilsons who make sport so much more interesting all-round. It's not guaranteed of course; Andrew Flintoff was practically born with a cricket ball in his hand, but he's done his best to be interesting off the field as well as on.

I wish Rod Harrington all the best with building a PDC Youth Training scheme; I just hope that in training the next generation of Phil Taylors and Raymond van Barnevelds they bear in mind that if Phil Taylor and Raymond van Barneveld's talents had been spotted at the age of eight and nurtured in professional darts academies by rigorous coaches and slick sports psychologists, all the talent and darting brilliance in the world wouldn't make them sportsmen as interesting and compelling to watch as they are today. Phil Taylor, Raymond van Barneveld and other top darts players are unqiue, one-off creations - you can't mass-produce them.

Don't take the real, honest, and compelling amateurism out of professional darts.

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