Budding athletes shoot Lloyd Percival 200,000 queries a year, get personal coaching tips for any sport. It’s all free — no box tops
HIS FRIENDS all laughed when Lloyd Percival sat down to teach young Canada to play—and his native Toronto still is littered with vociferous sceptics—but this 36-year-old Johnny-come-lately to the sports world has created something unique that has prompted young Canadians to write him more than three quarters of a million letters about it in the last four years. He calls it, simply, Sports College.
Physically, Sports College consists of three unpretentious rooms on the second floor of an old brick building on Toronto’s College Street, flanked, appropriately enough, by the Central YMCA, and only a good brassie shot from Maple Leaf Gardens. Within its voluminous files are all the letters received since Sports College opened on July 21, 1944, from youngsters who want to know how to hit a curve ball, how to train for a 10-mile swim, how to stop a one-nostril nosebleed, whether to sign a professional hockey option or take a steady job, whether the ballet will unflatteringly bulge a set of feminine stems, how to hit a backhand drive, a three-foot putt, an opponent’s chin or .400. To cope with the mail, which averages 200,000 letters a year, there is a full-time staff of seven and six others who work three afternoons or evenings a week. Originator, developer and head coach of Sports College is Percival, who has probably trained
more athletes than any other coach in the world-
Coast to coast, every Saturday at noon since July, 1944, Percival has been getting to bis classes via the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for 15 minutes, in which an audience estimated by the CBC at “more than a million” can get the latest methods of training without sending in a single box top. It is by preference and not by necessity that, the program is unsponsored. Percival claims to have rejected an offer of $25,000 a year from a soft-drink company which wanted to take over Sports College, lock, stock and split infinitive.
Percival writes many letters giving answers to mdividual problems but usually he sends his answers in the form of booklets, pamphlets and bulletins, of which 300,000 go out annually. These include such titles as How to Play Better Basketball, How to Play Better Tennis, How to Play Better Hockey, Ten Ways to Become a Better Boxer and Ten Ways to Learn to Swim. Preseason Football Training, Helpful Hints on Skiing, How to Develop and Keep Top Level Organic Condition and Fitness for Athletic Activities are others on the list. All of these, jam-packed with facts and printed in eye-taxing six-point type, are available free to anybody who writes to Sports College and asks for them.
Fourteen-year-old Freddie Creighton of Brandon,
Man., wrote for the baseball booklet and thumbed quickly to the section devoted to catchers, his favorite position. This was only one of a dozen baseball books he sent for and with youthful cynicism he really didn’t expect to learn anything new. But he did when, on page 31, he read: “Always remember to use the correct hand position when taking the ball. It will save you many injured fingers and dropped balls. If the ball is below your waist, make sure your fingers are pointing toward the ground. If the ball is above your waist, be sure they are pointing up to the sky. Never take a ball while your fingers are pointing ahead of you toward the pitcher. Watch this carefully—it is very important. Also remember to keep your hands and wrists relaxed when taking the ball.”
Young Creighton, who says he was “just catching the ball” before he read the booklet, feels he has learned something important.
The Coach is Confident
IT COSTS money to keep the thousands of youngsters like Creighton informed and this year expenses will be around $50,000. As interest in Sports College grows, correspondence mounts and, with it, the costs of booklets, research and adminiitration. To date, the bills have been met by the CBC which provides free network time and the use of its facilities and staff, including Producer Reid Forsee. It is Percival’s estimate that Sports College would cost a sponsor around $200,000 annually if he were required to pay for network time, production and the operating costs of the project. For the future, plans are now well advanced for a new setup. A Sports College Association has been formed and incorporated as a nonprofit body to handle financing and general policy. Backing it will be a national committee whose names read like excerpts from Who’s Who and headed by Gen. H. D. G. Crerar, former commander of the First Canadian Army. All of them will serve without remuneration. The working staff at Sports College will continue to receive salaries.
It would be inaccurate to call Percival modest but he isn’t a pop-off,
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either. He’s deeply interested in Sports College and because he invariably knows what he is talking about on that subject he speaks forcefully, rapidly, enthusiastically and, like a lot of people who know their ground, arrogantly, at times. When talk moves to ground unfamiliar to him, he can be a good listener. At 36 he is a stocky, heavy-shouldered man, with thinning blond hair that recedes sharply over each temple, a cleft chin and glasses. He smoked for 17 years and then he figured cigarettes weren’t doing him any good so he stopped. He drinks occasionally, has the theory that a drink is all right if a man is feeling fit. “It’s when you feel you need one that you should stay away from them,” he says.
He has few hobbies, admits he takes his work home with him. But his wife Dorothy, is a sports fan, too, and is as enthusiastic as her husband about Sports College. There are a lot of other people who share her enthusiasm.
For instance, Lester Patrick, former manager of the New York Rangers and current vice-president of Madison Square Garden, wrote to Percival after perusing the booklet, How to Play Better Hockey: “You not only reveal
that you know the game from A to Z but you are blessed with the happy faculty of being able to record and portray your thoughts in a manner that is easily understandable to the average boy. Also, there doesn’t appear to be a single fundamental detail that has been overlooked. I rate your booklet the best 1 have ever seen.”
Patrick turned the booklet over to Thomas F. Lockhart, president of the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States, who immediately wrote Percival requesting 400 copies. “We want every hockey player registered in our Association to receive copies of these guides,” wrote Lockhart.
Similarly, Percival’s How to Play Better Basketball was distributed in
high schools throughout Indiana, basketball’s hotbed state, on the instigation of Coach Carl Bennet of the professional basketball wonders, the Fort Waybe Zöllners. Bennet discovered the booklet when he brought his team to Toronto for an exhibition appearance a year ago and called it “the best book on basketball I’ve ever seen.”
It would be less than the truth to state, however, that praise for Percival flows undiluted from the lips of all sports notables. Hap Day, coach of the Stanley Cup champion Toronto Maple Leafs, calls the hockey booklet “a lot of bunkum,” and adds, “There’s some good stuff in there, stuff he picked up from NHL coaches, but the rest of it makes for confusion, is impractical.”
Percival listens to such attacks with patience. “I’ve never denied that our books contain stuff that has appeared in other books,” he says. “My only claim is that our books contain the best stuff of all books, the very latest and the tested stuff.”
U. S. Complex
The unsolicited testimonial that Percival prizes most came, perhaps unwittingly, from Dr. A. H. Steinhaus, Chief of the Health Division, United States Office of Education, who when he became aware of the work of Sports College commented: “Why didn’t we
think of this first?” This was music to Percival because it was what he calls his “United States neurosis” that got him started on his project. As a kid he played all sports and he became increasingly aware that in everything except hockey Canadians played second fiddle to Americans.
Percival’s father, now dead, was an Englishman who resented American dominance in sport, too, and between them they felt that inadequate coaching contributed in some measure to Canadian incompetence. In 1930 Percival Sr. paid Lloyd’s way to South Bend. Ind., where the late football coaching great, Knute Rockne, was conducting a summer school in coaching. He was there when Rockne ex-
pressed the thought that theU.S. should have a national sports centre, or a system whereby the fundamentals of all sports could be taught on a national basis. That first put the Sports College bug in Percival’s head.
A fast and convincing talker then as now, he sold the idea of a daily column called, “Comment From the Coach.” He wrote sports fiction for American pulp magazines, too, he relates, and also picked up pin money writing “a certain horrible type of verse.” He sold sports equipment, did odd jobs and with the money he seldom missed an opportunity" to fit himself for the job he envisaged at Rockne’s school. He also took coaching courses from outstanding U. S. football and basketball instructors and learned about track and field from the head coach of the U. S. Olympic team, Dean Cromwell. Renny Leonard was in charge of a boxing school he attended.
Those Sea Fleas
By way of further preparation, Percival played almost every sport, just to get the feel. In 1932, he coached the National Sea Fleas, a midget hockey team whose roster included Bobby Bauer, who later joined the Boston Bruins, and Art Childs, the goalkeeper for Hamilton’s senior Tigers. The team was sensational, won 19 straight games, never tasted defeat and scored more than 200 goals while allowing its opponents exactly four.
In 1936 he went to England with a Canadian cricket team. The boys won 17 games, lost one and climaxed the tour by beating a representative team from t he famed Marylebone Cricket Club at Ixird’s. Percival was the test’s high scorer of a low-scoring encounter, hitting 45 runs. It was in a conversation with Ted Husing, the American sports broadcaster whom he met in London, that Percival first visualized the possibilities of radio as a medium by which coaches and athletes across Canada could be reached.
On his return to Canada he con-
fronted Hon. Ian Mackenzie, Minister of National Health, and his deputy, John Heagerty. “The Government,” relates Percival, “was interested but claimed the idea was impractical.”
He was discouraged, he admits, but then he met a girl named Dorothy McDonald who liked sports and liked the idea of a clearinghouse for people with sports problems. When they decided to be married, they used the honeymoon money Percival had saved to buy six months of radio time on a Hamilton station. In six months, it had attracted 20,000 members to what Percival then called Canadian Sports College.
Outgrowing the Sponsor
By now the war had started and when Percival was rejected for service because of a dim optic incurred while boxing he produced a two-hour quiz game for Canadian War Services. This provided questions and answers for a master of ceremonies that incorporated almost every known form of quiz, and the game could be chopped up into 15minute portions to suit camp programs. William R. Cook, who was in charge of the YMCA War Services, immediately had Percival’s effort distributed to Y outposts overseas. He also became interested in Percival’s idea of a national sports instruction school. Cook figured the YMCA the logical organization to underwrite and pioneer the development. E. L. Bushnell, director-general of programs for the CBC, arranged for free CBC time and when the program took the air in July, 1944, the CBC made it available to any station that wanted it. Also interested was J. Ardagh Scythes, Toronto businessman and then a member of the Y’s National Council, who organized a committee that raised a $20,000 budget to finance one year’s operations. By 1946 the plan had outgrown this financing arrangement and the Y dropped out as an active sponsor, although it still supports the idea.
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The year IK fore Sports College started halting them out on a national network its mentor had signed on todo a comic-strip coaching feature for a breakfast food manufacturer, in which he was billed as “ ‘Ace’ Percival, Canada’s most versatile athlete.” Once his nonsponsored radio show began to build up, however, its youthful following was inclined to confuse the two projects and cynics suggested the w«*kly broadcasts must be more than a nice boost for the breakfast food, though it had no connection with the air show and wasn’t mentioned. When he realized what was happening, says Percival, he dropped the commercial comic strip venture in 1946.
New York Cleanup
To keep his preachings up-to-date, Professor Percival of Sports College subscribes to every piece of sports literature available to him, with emphasis on the findings of research and technical groups, and when a new technique for, say, pole vaulting is developed, his Sports College is one of the first to know about it. He tests the technique on the Sports College Testing Group— 22 young Ontario athletes and if the technique has merit Percival incorporates it into a booklet with the full knowledge of the author.
Percival says he spent $1,100 of his own money last February to train and take a group of eight Ontario athletes to the United States national interscholastic championship meet, at Madison Square Garden. The eight athletes won six medals, an unprecedented accomplishment by Canadians. Only two ever had competed indoors before. One, George Lynch of Toronto, a 17-year-old schoolboy, three months later established a world's scholastic record in the three-mile event of a Toronto high-school meet— 15 minutes 34 seconds.
Percival recalls his first meeting with Lynch: “In March of 1946. carrying an old batten'd pair of running shoes, he told me he had finish«! eighth in a school cross-country race. He said he’d never run before but that he liked it and would 1 coach him. I told him to run around the track and I saw that he had nice, loose hips and an easy style. We call him Old Man River now and he ran that way then. After a couple of days I told him he’d break the two-mile record for 16-vear-olds if he followed instructions and a diet program. On May 22, he broke the two-mile record.
“He was underdistanced throughout his training,” Percival explains, “a new method of instruction by which t he runner does his training at a distance less than that at which he’ll compete. And he does it at a pace faster t han that he’ll use in competition. This overcomes fatigue. By driving the body at a higher pace you’re developing an antidote for the fatigue acids, lactic and carbolic. The fast pace adjusts the body to the higher pace: it enables the body to tolerate a high amount of fatigue acids.”
Says Lynch: “Before 1 met Percival I couldn’t run upstairs.”
It becomes increasingly apparent, through letters addressed to Sports College, that the project is more than a sports undertaking. Perhaps the most interesting single phase of operations is the personal question clinic through which members can send their individual problems to ;> head coach. Percival estimates he answers 500 letters a week.
The clinic sometimes takes Percival beyond his instructional depth. Manv
girls—and there is a flourishing feminine! membership—ask for sports information “so we can talk sensibly to our boy friends” and many a letter contains an obviously confidential query like “ought I to quit smoking” or “should 1stop going out with girls” or “do prayers help.” Percival does his best to answer all the questions and when he doesn’t know the answer himself, he consults people who should.
This fall Percival has been giving his members a new shot in the arm following his return from the Olympic Games in London. The CBC sent him to England as an observer and his wife went along to catch the world’s best leapers and sprinters on movie film for later study by the Sports College coach.
That the coach’s listeners will be treated to some zealous pep talks on the subject of what Canada must do to boost her showing in the next Olympics
was indicated when Percival unburdened himself to the newspapers soon after his return. “We were so hopelessly unready this year that we encountered little but raised eyebrows on the pans of astonished questioners,” Lloyd declared, going on to charge that many of Canada’s Olympic coaches seemed more interested in the social outings than in tending to their athletes. Back from London Percival brought a new brainchild—the necessity for the formation of an Olympic development association which will start now to find and train potential winners for the next world meet in 1952.
Whether anything comes of that scheme or not, Sports College will be on the air doing its bit to whip the country’s budding sportsmen into shape. And all the tips Coach Percival picked up from watching the world’s greatest athletes will be flooding out in the mails to youngsters all over the Dominion.