This week’s article will highlight and give an in-depth analysis into the success of the GB Junior Men’s Programme, considering their U23 World Championship victory last month in Toronto, Canada when they beat Turkey to secure the gold medal. This article idea was suggested to me by Scotland U23 player, Luke Pearce.
I managed to catch up with coaches and players who are or used to be involved in the U23 programme so I could get their thoughts on why they think the programme has become so successful over the years.
Scott Wallace, who is the current head coach of the GB U23 team said: “The success of the GB juniors in the World Championships is a combination of good fundamental skills through preparation and a strong belief in each other.” He also talked about how much the junior squad reflects the depth of talent GB has. He added: “The programme helps separate the athletes who are willing to work hard individually and collectively to help the team become the best they can be.”
Wallace believes in commitment and thanks to all the athletes who commit themselves to the programme. He credits competitions like Junior League, National Junior Championships and School Games for allowing junior players “the opportunity to hone their skills” and “progress accordingly.” For the future of the programme, Wallace wants to continue to focus on perfecting the basics as he thinks: “It will build on the success we have enjoyed and will set up for the forthcoming U22 European Championships next year.”
Mat Foden enjoyed his time as the head coach of the GB juniors, he said: “Young players tend to have no fear and just want to have fun and learn, so it was a pleasure to help them along on their journey in not just basketball but in life.” He enjoyed seeing the progression of athletes from junior to senior programmes including the likes of; Harry Brown, Phil Pratt, George Bates and Gregg Warburton. Foden always thought there was a good supply of talented players coming through the programme and said that he always had a good squad to work with.
He credited BWB for having competitions like the National Junior Championships in place so young players have a chance to work together and play against each other. He emphasised this by saying: “These competitions enable young people from across the country to play in tournaments and gain game-time.” In the future, Foden believes the GB juniors should continue to produce high-quality players due to the amount of young talent within the country.
I talked to current U23 World Champions; James MacSorley, Jack Perry, Sam Mack and Billy Bridge.
James MacSorley has been involved with the U23 programme since 2012, when asked about being a World Champion he said: “Being a World Champion is an unbelievable feeling, I’m honestly still struggling to describe it. Being able to do what no junior men’s team has ever done with such a great group of lads was something I’ll never forget.” MacSorley stated that the programme helped him become an international athlete on and off the court. He is looking forward to continuing his GB journey as he plans on moving to Sheffield from Belfast from next year onwards so he can train full-time with GB.
Jack Perry was first selected for a junior tournament in 2013 when he was 17 and he has just graduated the University of Leeds with a 2:1 in History. When asked about how it felt to be U23 World Champion Perry said: “It feels incredible, I just suddenly remember every now and again that it happened and I smile to myself. The moment it happened I can’t describe, it was so emotional and just everything we’d worked for coming to fruition at one time. I’m so happy I got to share that moment with some of the best teammates I’ve ever had.”
Perry credits the programme for teaching him how to become a world-class athlete as well as key life skills such as leadership, co-operation, and determination. “It’s been an honor to be a part of it for so long and for it to culminate with a World Championship win is just perfect.” Perry is determined to make the transition up to the senior men’s squad within the next few years.
Sam Mack made his U23 debut this year and when he was asked how it felt to be U23 World Champion he said: “It’s honestly the best feeling in the world, to know all the years of hard work and sacrifices have paid off. To be a part of the team that had such incredible chemistry on and off the court was really great and the whole experience has given me more motivation to achieve more goals.”
Mack said that the biggest thing he’s learned from the programme is to never give up on your hopes or ambitions to achieve goals. “My goal has always been to represent my country since I started playing basketball.” He felt that all the times that he didn’t quite make selections made him more resilient and therefore he was able to achieve selection for the World Championships. Mack is looking forward to centralising in Sheffield so he can train with the U23s on a more full-time basis which will provide a good pathway for him to progress to the senior squad in the future.
Billy Bridge is a veteran of the U23 squad, joining the programme in 2009 and having gained experience of playing abroad in 2013 and 2014. When asked how it felt to be U23 World Champion he said: “Being a World Champion is a crazy feeling, it still hasn’t sunk in fully. It’s something I always dreamed of achieving since I started playing wheelchair basketball, 10 years ago. No British team has ever medalled, never mind won gold at a Junior World Championship so being part of a team that made history is a very proud moment for me.”
He credited Haj Bhania and Mat Foden for his early development through the programme. He said that the loss to Turkey earlier this year at the Euros made the team more resilient and fight back at the Worlds to become World Champions. He emphasised the connection he had with the team by saying: “The bond I felt out in Toronto with that particular team was a special feeling. There was no weak link.” He also talked about how the programme has allowed him to change his life and become a top-level athlete in the sport. He believes BWB have the best junior programme in the world and he thinks Scott Wallace and Pete Finbow are doing a great job. Bridge has faith in Lee Fryer and Peter Cusack to be the next generation of GB athletes.
Bridge aspires to progress onto the senior men’s squad and knows that this will be a tough challenge but he has confidence in his ability to achieve goals. He is also going to study politics at Sheffield Hallam University. He talked about that it was a dream of his to attend university and he looks forward to the new challenge of earning a degree.
I also managed to catch up with former U23 player Mark Scholefield to learn about his experiences from the programme.
Scholefield was involved with the U23 programme from 2008 to 2014. He was first selected for a friendly tournament in 2010 but his first major tournament was the U22 European Championships in 2014, his last year as a junior. After a few years away from the programme, he has recently been invited back to the GB development pathway starting this September, he elaborated on this by saying: “I’m hoping that this is what will represent the next stage in my development as a player.” He also plans on playing abroad again once he’s finished his software engineering degree at Sheffield Hallam University.
He describes his experiences from the programme as “bitter-sweet” as he always worried about getting selected for the squad which stopped him from playing the best of his ability. He says he faced a lot of disappointment whenever he just missed out on getting selected for a major tournament. However, when he got selected for the Euros in 2014 he said: “It felt like real redemption when I was selected for the 2014 Euros, playing in the Italian league took a lot of the pressure of the GB programme off my shoulders.” Winning the 2014 European Championship made the whole journey feel worth it.” Scholefield added that the programme has allowed him to develop genuine friendships with the likes of; Kyle Marsh, Lee Manning, Phil Pratt, Harry Brown, Gregg Warburton and George Bates.
Scholefield also talked about that when he wasn’t selected: “it was a blessing in disguise” because it taught him that however unfair it seemed at the time that this was how life works. “Feeling sorry for yourself isn’t going to change anything. As difficult as it feels, you dust yourself off and get ready for when things do break your way.”
Finally, I also caught up with the duo of George Bates, and Phil Pratt to discuss how the junior programme helped their transition into the senior squad.
George Bates was first selected for the U23 squad in 2013 which made him feel a sense of pride and achievement. He said: “I went into it thinking I had what it took to be one of the better players there, I’d had a good season in England and I was naïve and I had no idea what the other players were going to be like.” He stated that he got bullied on court by the other players which made him realise that: “I guess I learnt that I wasn’t anywhere near as good as I thought I was.” This experience gave him the motivation and determination to push himself to become the best version of himself he could possibly be so he could get to the level he wanted to achieve.
Bates made his senior debut in 2017. Bates talked about the transition from the junior to senior squad saying: “The transition from juniors to seniors is a big step. The level is just a long way apart. It helped me by making me work harder to improve, this made the jump not as big as it could have been.” Bates’ next goal is to get selected for the World Championships next summer and win gold at the event.
Phil Pratt first got selected for a friendly junior tournament in Italy after the squad had just had a full clear out of players because they were too old. He said: “I was so excited but nervous at the same time, I didn’t really know what to expect. It was my first taste of working hard and achieving a goal.” He has carried this mentality through to his senior career and made his senior debut in 2013.
He stated but the biggest thing he learned from the junior programme was mental toughness. He thought: “A lot of juniors coming into the team thinking they are the finished product, I was the complete opposite. After going to my first camp I wanted to stand out and doing that meant I had to work hard on my own in Wales which allowed me to be a big part of the junior team. I wasn’t necessarily the most talented player there but I always believed that if you worked hard, then the results will come.”
He said but the junior programme hugely helped the transition into the senior squad, adding that it wasn’t the junior programme he wouldn’t have been able to see how tough the competition was to make the senior squad. He credits Haj Bhania for helping him daily so he could make selections for the senior squad.
To finish off, he said: “I feel as though I’ve only really shown the world 30% of what I can do, there is a lot more to come from me and I’m excited to show everyone.” He also looks forward to helping the next generation of junior players coming through the system as he will be based in England again this season so he’ll be able to help at junior camps.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this article. Stay tuned for next week’s article previewing the National Junior Championships 2017 with comments from U19 players representing each region or home country.
By Dylan Cummings