As with all other sports, bowls is constantly looking for innovative ways in which to regenerate itself by attracting younger players to the game.
For bowls that is an especially big challenge as the sport, generally unfairly, has been always portrayed as a game for the elderly, and to use the somewhat pejorative term, as “old man’s marbles.”
Bowls itself doesn’t always help itself in dispelling that image. Most of the advertising signs at just about every club are for retirement villages and funeral services.
But Bowls North Harbour, in a programme spearheaded by one of the Auckland region’s leading coaches, Howard Sandler, is taking meaningful steps to recruit more young people into its playing ranks.
Secondary schools have for many years been a target and on the North Shore clubs like Takapuna and Mairangi Bay have had ties with neighbouring schools like Takapuna Grammar, Rosmini College and Rangitoto College. But now North Harbour, through Sandler, is beginning to focus on even younger players, especially at intermediate school levels.
Sandler has extended to North Harbour a programme he pioneered with success on the other side of the Bridge based mainly around the Remuera club and the nearby Dilworth School and Diocesan College. He has enlisted already to his programme Belmont Intermediate, Pinehurst and Vauxhall and interest has also been shown by Carmel College.
Bowls North Harbour board members Garry Banks and Maureen Taylor have been some of his foremost helpers and more recently has been a legend of Auckland’s Carlton club and a former national champion Ivan Marsic, who is now living in Orewa.
One of Sandler’s key strategies has been to hold “Open Days,” and these have not only involved the youngsters but there has also been enthusiastic participation from parents and grandparents when they have come simply to watch.
While bowls will always remain a game for all ages Sandler says it is an obvious fact that the younger anyone starts as a player the better chance he or she has of becoming a champion. Starting as young as possible, even at primary school, has been a factor in the rise in bowls of Asian countries like Malaysia, Thailand and India and in the continued dominance of Australia, where players in their teens and 20s abound. Essential to that, Sandler believes, is having learnt the basics so young.
Sandler says to retain young people’s interest in bowls it is important to make it fun. It also helps if challenges are provided and this can be done by involving school against school and even in mini “Battles of the Bridge.”
Providing an environment in which those of different generations can co-exist might be challenge but so far Sandler has received excellent co-operation from clubs. And nor is he worried by the experiences of those clubs in the past which have promoted college bowls, only to see many of their recruits quickly drift away because of other distractions… other sports, studies, boy/girlfriends…
While they may drift away for some years, because of other priorities, there is every likelihood they will resume playing bowls in later life and with advantages over those of us who lament that in our 50s and 60s we’ve started the game too late.
Sandler also is not competing for his recruits against other sports. If they wish to continue with football, netball, cricket and tennis it’s fine by him. It is just matter of working around other interests.