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Education a key part of academy puzzle

With a record 11 young players from the Leicester Tigers Academy stepping up to development level this season and a core of homegrown talent in the senior squad, the club’s development pathway looks to be in good health.

But the focus isn’t just on shaping the next generation of stars on the pitch.

As academy manager Dave Wilks explains, the club is also responsible for developing well-rounded young men.

“We have a range of players from different families, different backgrounds and different areas,” he says.

“We work with the families to educate them on what routes are available. Hopefully, there is a pathway for every single individual.”

Given the age of players in the Tigers Academy, a big part of that support involves their formal education as well as behaviours.

“A lot of the work initially is on off-field behaviour – how they prepare, how they look after themselves – and about owning their own development,” Wilks says.

“And ultimately, that can only help their performance on the pitch.”

Dave Wilks

“This year we’ve got the services of Sue Ashwin, who is Associate Principal at Wyggeston and Queen Elizabeth I College and who has a wealth of experience with that 16 to 18 age group, as well as a fantastic knowledge of that sort of young person and the problems they can face.

“She is able to give some general workshops like time-management, but also some bespoke support for guys that need it.

“The parents are very much part of that, so she’s available for parents’ questions and things like that as well.

“There’s probably a need for certain individuals to have some more intense support, [while] other players and their families just need a bit of reassurance.”

Prioritising a hectic schedule is an immediate work-on.

With youngsters juggling school work alongside rugby training at school level and with Tigers, plus everything else that comes with teenage life, managing a player’s priorities is an important area for development.

Wilks says: “I think it would be difficult for any of us to balance that mix of school, extra study and training, although I’m not going to tell them that!

“You think about a whole new set of standards, new environments, new people to meet and impress, appointments to keep, it’s a lot to process.

“A lot of them will want to say ‘yes’ to stuff because they are the type of lads who want to contribute. But they need to really learn how to prioritise, so you know that Monday afternoon you need to be here at Oval Park.

“Our partner schools show a huge amount of flexibility for our players and they support them as students – and athletes – exceptionally well. In most cases we are just backing up that academic support.”

Sometimes, school and rugby overlap. Full-back Freddie Steward was finishing his homework on the way up to Sale Sharks ahead of his Premiership debut last season.

And with this year’s academy squad currently on a development trip in, GCSE results day needs to be factored into the coaching team’s plans.

“We’ll have a low-key morning that day,” Wilks says. “We’ve put breakfast back a little bit to give them time to get on the phone to home, and if some boys want to celebrate and tell everyone about it, then that’s great.

“All we can do is be around and make sure they’re supported, and then quickly give them something to do.

“We’ve got the Under-18s cooking lunch for them that day, and then we’ll be on a bus back to the UK.

“We want them to be well-rounded humans and that helps in the senior environment.

“We definitely do not see the academy as something that should take away from their life at all – it should add to it. And ultimately, that can only help their performance on the pitch.”