Tom Byer is tasked with implementing a total sea-change in the way the country of over a billion people perceives and coaches the sport. As the Chinese Super League...
At a time when getting kids active is a high priority, many Hongkongers are still waking up to the benefits of sport.
There are a number of issues faced here – space is at a premium and education is often put before all else – but the attitude is slowly shifting.
Physical education is gradually starting to come under the consideration of local Hong Kong families, although it is taking time to convince parents that sport can play a vital role in a balanced education and a healthy lifestyle.
“For the time being, honestly speaking, it is not a high priority,” said Daniel Chow Hung-kay, the head of the department of health and physical education at the Education University of Hong Kong.
“Parents will strive for academic excellence first, that’s why we are devoting a lot of effort to demonstrate to parents that doing exercise is actually good for a students’ academic performance, because it can facilitate brain growth and facilitate cognitive thinking.”
Daniel Chow from the Education University of Hong Kong (far right) with HSBC’s Giles Morgan and Kevin Martin and HKRU chairman Pieter Schats at the HSBC Try Rugby launch. Photo: Jonathan Wong
Schools in Hong Kong are working hard to break the mould and, according to Chow, their programmes are designed so they not only provide exercise now but also instil an ongoing love of sport.
“Number one, through the sports we try to provide physical education to the students to equip them with basic motor functions and basic movement skills,” he said.
“But besides that, they have to decide which type of sport they want to pick and then at the end, hopefully they want to find some lifelong exercise.”
While Chow admits there is a long road ahead, he hopes the introduction of a range of different sports will help arouse interest.
One such sport that is taking hold both inside and outside of schools is rugby, with the recently announced HSBC Try Rugby programme predicted to introduce the sport to 50,000 school children within 12 months.
Former Fiji coach Ben Ryan leads the way during a coaching clinic at the recent HSBC Try Rugby launch. Photo: Jonathan Wong
“Parents seldom pay much attention to sport,” Chow said. “That’s why we want to promote a healthy lifestyle to all school children, introducing more emerging games so as to arouse the interest in playing sports. That’s our mission.”
Outside of schools, one company that is promoting the values of exercise through rugby is Rugbytots.
Run by Hong Kong Scottish player Ben Cullen and the club’s general manager Bryan Rennie, Rugbytots predominantly targets kids aged two to seven.
“It’s by no means us only trying to teach rugby,” said Rennie, who played for the Exeter Chiefs and Bristol during a 10-year professional career in the UK.
“It’s get out there, be outside, be active and be healthy, it just happens to be with a rugby ball.
Ben Cullen (left) and Bryan Rennie have fun with the kids at a Rugbytots class. Photo: Dickson Lee
“Before this, I’d never coached kids as young as two but you see them listening to instructions, staying calm and associating different colours and I think in those fundamentals the parents really enjoy seeing the improvement.”
Rugbytots has franchises all over the world but Cullen and Rennie are the first to bring it to Asia, with interest high since they began operation in January this year.
Cullen is confident the number of kids participating in Rugbytots will continue to grow and says 2,000 kids a week within five years isn’t out of reach.
“Schools are interested because it is an introduction to rugby, we’re not actually playing rugby matches,” Cullen said.
“Everything is a story and a game to bring their imagination to life. Each child has a ball, so they improve at a similar rate, rather than having one or two children who are good on a 10-man team.”
Ben Cullen (left) and Bryan Rennie run a group of kids through some basic rugby drills at a Rugbytots class. Photo: Dickson Lee
Further adding to the pull of sport is the growing awareness around the career opportunities it offers.
Chow sights the success of Hong Kong Sports Institute athletes and the growing interest in the Olympics as catalysts in parents taking sport more seriously, while the Hong Kong Rugby Union’s professional programmes offer genuine career options.
“Parents can see there is a goal there and it’s not just a hobby taking away from time spent studying,” Rennie said.
“It’s a real opportunity to travel, see the world and play sport. I definitely think attitudes are shifting so I think our timing [with Rugbytots] is quite good.”