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A sporting chance for students

Bram van Asselt, Exsportise founder and managing director, tells Melanie Butler how learning English through sport inspired him to set up his innovative summer camps


TEAM SPIRIT Like his students, Bram van Asselt (left) found sports to be a great way to learn English (Courtesy Exsportise)

 Bram van Asselt knows that sport can hold the key to learning English – because it helped him learn it. When he was seventeen years old his family moved from Holland to England, and the founder and managing director of Exsportise found himself in a school where he barely spoke a word of the language.

‘I survived because there was another Dutch boy in the class, and he spoke for me, but it was on the sports field that I learned the language.’

Bram ended up studying sport, and after a few years as a professional hockey player in Holland fell into coaching in the UK. ‘I got involved just at the point the government began to fund sports courses for disadvantaged children. I began working with Arsenal – we still run Arsenal football and English courses at Exsportise – but I worked in all sorts of sports.’

Including his beloved hockey? ‘Yes. My dream was to see a group of English boys standing at a bus stop with hockey sticks without feeling embarrassed.’

‘It worked,’ I comment. ‘We beat Holland recently.’

‘And we beat you at cricket in the World Cup,’ he shoots back.

His entry into the world of ELT came about by accident. A pioneer in professional training for coaches – he still runs the country’s biggest website for sports coaches – he built up a cohort of dedicated sports coaches and they began to run sports camps for British children held at UK boarding schools. The coaches came because they loved the atmosphere, and they came back year after year. Children from Europe also began to turn up. They wanted to play sports, their parents wanted them to study English, so Exsportise roped in the boarding school teachers to give English classes.

‘At the beginning the kids hated it. These were sports kids. We would sit them down in an English class, and somebody would climb out the window and head to the football field.’ The answer was to find someone who knew how to run fun language classes, and Bram, with a nose for a great teacher, hired the now legendary Nigel Heritage, who went on to pioneer sports and language courses at a number of the UK’s historic public schools. It worked – ‘I haven’t seen a kid running away to the sports fields in years!’

Sports, however, remain at the core of what Exsportise does. The kids are looked after in teams by their coach. And it’s on the sports field they use the language they’ve learned. Sport is what these kids want to do, and English is the language they learn to achieve that goal. Bram’s educational philosophy sums it up: ‘Tell me and I forget, teach me and I learn, involve me and I remember.’

Recently, Exsportise has introduced dance and music classes. ‘I was inspired by my daughter. She’s a dancer. You can’t believe how dedicated they are: the discipline, the hours of practice, the physical demands.’ If kids want to learn to dance, Exsportise will teach them – and it will teach them professionally and in English.

For Bram the goal is excellence, and in the language classroom – as on the sports field or in the music room – excellence comes down to professional inspirational teaching. Small wonder then that Exsportise recently became an EL Gazette Centre of Excellence, having achieved outstanding results in its most recent British Council inspection. ‘I didn’t even know you could be a Centre of Excellence,’ he admits. ‘I just want to run excellent summer schools.’ Though as a professional sportsman, he admits, winning awards is always welcome.

Not that he will rest on his laurels. He is now focused on revolutionising language teaching in the same way he has helped revolutionise sports coaching. ‘What you need to create is a team,’ he says. ‘A team of teachers who do this because they love it, who are always looking for ways to do it better.’

Bram’s team of sports coaches has been working together for years. ‘Many of the sports coaches grew up with me. I trained them. They come every year. They get married, they bring their families to the summer camps. It’s a way of life. I love it.’