Building a School Athletic Development Programme - By Henry Davies

Building a School Athletic Development Programme - By Henry Davies
If you are a Director of Sport, Senior Leader, Head of PE, or Strength and Conditioning coach working in a school setting and are looking to build an athletic development programme, then this article is written for you.

This article aims to outline some principles around which the athletic development programme at Cheltenham College was built over an eight-year period, which will hopefully provide you with some guidance around what worked well and how it can help you too. The main objective of writing this was to provide some clear operating principles to enable others to benefit from this experience of developing a programme. This doesn’t aim to speak about the specific training programmes in any great detail, but rather the key principles that enabled the effective development of the programme as a whole.

The principles which supported the development of the school programme were as follows:


Start with the end in mind - think long term when most are looking for short term returns

‘Nothing worth having comes easily’ is an important heuristic when building a school athletic development programme. It takes time to build the infrastructure, culture and momentum that enable an effective programme to be run. It can be easy to become frustrated with the lack of short term progress when working in a busy school with multiple priorities, so thinking long term is often a better way to see the bigger picture.

The longer that time went on, the longer the time horizon became, and it wasn’t until the five-year mark that we began to really see a big shift in culture. At this point, the programme had become an important facet of the school’s sporting provision and also became common language. Anyone who has read the research around culture change will know it takes a lot of time (inertia is a powerful force), so zooming out slightly and seeing the long term view will really help shift perspective.

In terms of having a clear outcome for the programme, our success criteria became ‘to ensure that pupils leave the school with the self-confidence and physical competence to complete a training programme in a range of environments.’ This is because we must acknowledge that a large proportion of pupils don’t continue with organised sport beyond school, and so we must cater for not only those aspiring to professional sport but also those who just need the knowledge and understanding to keep physically active into adult life.

The programme reflected this in the sense that we took a view of developing a range of physical competencies centered around the fundamental movement patterns, whilst also building a culture whereby everyone felt that they were just as welcome in the gym environment as everyone else. By the end of my time at Cheltenham College we had third form (year 9) girls training alongside the first XV rugby players in the gym, a huge success that I am still very proud of. Culture is the foundation of all great programmes, and so taking a long term view on this will allow it to grow organically.


Measure your results to enhance buy-in and resources

Something that can add tremendous value is measuring the results of your programme. Not only does this ensure that you are keeping good records (which is best practice), but can also be used to tell a story and provide demonstrable impact. Data can be used to tell a narrative around the programme. This does two things: build buy-in around the programme with senior leaders who may be able to increase the resources available to continue building the programme, and also develops buy-in from pupils and parents. If we are going to measure classroom results as a determinant of academic performance, then we must measure the results of our training programmes too. The specific assessments you use will be determined by the context that you are working in, but anything which is reliable, informs your programme and is scalable is likely to be an effective marker of progress. Some examples include time trial aerobic fitness assessments, tissue capacity tests and jumping based measurements.


Meet others where they are, not where you wish they were

In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey outlines the principle “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. As a young coach it is important to recognise that our own motivations and incentives may differ from those around us, especially senior leadership. Meeting others where they are, rather than where we wish they were means understanding their perspectives and priorities first, before trying to make ourselves understood. In doing so, we speak their language, engage more effectively with them, and are more likely to move the programme forwards as a whole. Whilst at Cheltenham College, the early conversations were far more centred around the marketing opportunities that would be available if we were to fund improvements in the gym facilities, and also the risks of not doing so from a health and safety perspective owing to the old equipment. This landed far more effectively than speaking in athletic development terms, and ultimately enabled us to increase the provision and fund the facility.


Focus on the basics to maximise consistency

It is no surprise that the fundamental movement patterns have continued to produce results in young athletes. They are the foundation upon which other movements can be built, and should be the priority in the early stages of an athlete’s development. These include landing, squatting, hinging, lunging, pushing, pulling and rotational movements such as throws.

These exercises provide the most return in relation to time invested, which makes them very effective. Consistently completing these basic movements and engraining excellent movement capabilities will pay dividends in the long run, as it provides a bedrock upon which more specific sporting movements can be laid. Having worked with athletes all the way through the pathway from school to high performance, it is a tremendous advantage for young athletes to have these physical tools as early as possible, as it expedites their transition into more advanced training programmes if they decide to pursue this. This means that coaches working at the next stage of the athlete’s journey has a ready-made athlete where they need them to be, rather than having to start from scratch.

This is the value of having a UKSCA accredited practitioner working in your school, as this is the ‘gold standard’ by which the profession is measured and ensures a certain professional standard is being met.

One simple system that was introduced at Cheltenham College was the ‘movement matrix’. This is in essence a grid system that lists movement progressions across a number of movement categories. For example: bodyweight squat, goblet squat, front squat, back squat. This was utilised in a number of ways - firstly as a means of differentiation in lessons and training sessions. A group could all complete a squat-based movement, but only those who demonstrated the necessary competencies were able to complete a ‘level 3’ variation, for example. Secondly, we used this to introduce younger age groups into the programme, and they had to ‘earn the right’ to progress into more advanced movement levels. This holds pupils accountable, keeps the programme laser focussed on technical competence, and makes it non-negotiable to complete each phase sequentially. Finally, it was used to future-proof the programme so that someone coming in could see very clearly how the system operated, the underpinning philosophy, operating principles, and future journey.

Click here to download the Movement Matrix



Utilise the warm-up to increase passive contact time

One of the problems faced in school-based athletic development programmes is that as a coach we can't be everywhere all the time and this limits our ability to spend time with a large number of athletes. A solution to this problem however is to use the warm-up before training and matches to incorporate athletic development tasks. This doesn't rely on us to be there to deliver this, as we can teach other staff members to deliver this for us across a broad spectrum of age groups and abilities. Just 10 minutes, 3 times per week across a school year adds up to over 20 hours of training time! The opportunity cost of not using this time wisely is significant.

Research has highlighted the impact of the FIFA 11+ injury prevention programme for example, a 20-minute preventative programme, which led to a 30% reduction in injuries in young football players (Sadigursky et al., 2017). This has been replicated in school rugby players in the School Injury Prevention Study led by Bath University, in which a 20-minute prevention programme involving 2,500 players aged 14 – 18 led to a 72% reduction in injuries and a 59% reduction in concussion (Hislop et al., 2017).

In taking this approach of utilising warm-up time, it means that we can have a much greater ‘passive’ reach as the lead of the athletic programme, whilst educating other staff members and having a greater impact on injury risk.


Get going, then get good

“Perfection is the enemy of the good” Voltaire

If we wait until the perfect time to begin doing something as a school, it prolongs the start and offsets the benefits of having something in place. Clearly, it is important to have a strategy and a clear thought process behind how the programme will look, but starting with something basic begins to build the momentum which will propel the programme forwards. Even having a standardised warm-up as explained will be a big step forwards if nothing is currently in place.

Rather than overthinking the process too much in the early stages of the programme, start by getting going. This enables the programme to progress through multiple iterations over time, rather than only starting once everything is perfect. Effective planning, differentiation and feedback all need to be considered, but it’s important to also start introducing athletic development principles as early as possible.

As an example, introducing a standardised ‘movement prep’ sequence for all teams and sports was one of the first steps in the programme at Cheltenham College, followed by allocated gym slots per year group which were coached. Over a period of time, this slowly evolved, adapted and improved until we were at a point where there was a full prep school athletic development programme, standardised team movement prep sequences, open gym sessions for all year groups, an injury rehab clinic, sport-specific sessions and a ‘Talented Athlete Programme’.


Integrate athletic development into the physical education syllabus

The Physical Education programme is a fantastic opportunity to integrate athletic development into this time, as it has a huge amount of complementary outcomes. It could even be argued that they are one and the same - where does one start and the other end?

It is my belief that the skills of PE teaching and S&C coaching are enormously impactful when combined. In the best-case scenario, the S&C coach should also be a PE teacher, as they can bring together complementary skills. The skills of lesson planning, behaviour management, feedback and reporting are immensely important and benefit the S&C coach as they structure sessions as lessons.

One of the major steps forward in the Cheltenham College programme was when athletic development was introduced into the GCSE PE syllabus, which enabled a broader reach of the programme. Not only did this allow those pupils to gain more exposure to these sessions, but it also meant that they became advocates for the programme and began to bring others along to sessions too. The social dynamic is a factor not to be underestimated.

Upskill staff to help deliver more frequent athletic development

As has already been mentioned, a problem when trying to build an athletic development programme is staff availability and resourcing. By upskilling all sports staff on the basics of athletic development our reach becomes infinitely greater and we can ensure that all pupils are getting some exposure to high-quality movement coaching. The UKSCA’s Certificate in the Foundations of Strength and Conditioning (S&C Trainer) course is a great starting point for many PE teachers and sports coaches to develop an understanding of the basics of athletic development.


Build an internship programme - solving two problems in one  

There are two big problems that can be solved by developing an S&C internship programme within the school programme: there is often not enough coaching capacity within a school to work with all pupils, and there are thousands of young S&C coaches desperate to gain experience and coaching exposure who struggle to find it.

At Cheltenham College we established a successful programme with the University of Gloucestershire, which enabled more coaches to deliver to a greater number of pupils. This meant that the interns themselves were gaining invaluable experience, which supported their subsequent employment in full-time roles, and also increased our ‘value added’ as a programme. Even one extra coach per year enables a far greater coaching capacity, and also has the added benefit of bringing in someone with specialist skills in this area.

The school athletic development programme is a huge asset to a school if developed effectively, and by using these principles it is hoped that schools may be able to benefit and grow their own programmes to continue providing maximum value to their pupils.

If this article has been helpful in any way, please feel free to reach out and ask me any questions that you might have.



Author - Henry Davies

Henry is a Strength and Conditioning coach at the English Institute of Sport, where he works with a range of Olympic and Paralympic sports including recent medallists at Tokyo 2020. He is also a lecturer in Strength and Conditioning at Hartpury University, and operates his own company Integrate Sports, which provides online coaching for aspiring athletes from a range of sports. Prior to his current roles, he worked at Cheltenham College for 8 years where he developed a highly successful athletic development programme across both the prep and senior schools. Henry is available for consultancy work and provides services to a range of clubs and schools.

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  • Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

  • Hislop, M. D., Stokes, K. A., Williams, S., McKay, C. D., England, M. E., Kemp, S. P. T., & Trewartha, G. (2017). Reducing musculoskeletal injury and concussion risk in schoolboy rugby players with a pre-activity movement control exercise programme: a cluster randomised controlled trial. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 51(15), 1140-1146. .

  • Sadigursky, D., Braid, J.A., De Lira, D.N.L. et al. The FIFA 11+ injury prevention program for soccer players: a systematic review. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil 9, 18 (2017).

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