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Sunday, April 29, 2007

SA Sports Performance - what needs to be done

It has often been said that in order to improve sporting performance, one needs to focus on the bottom level of the performance triangle rather than at the peak. The rationale for this approach is sound, and it should be obvious to all concerned that the continued and sustained long term improvements of our on-field sporting performances depend on the identification, selection and then management of talent, which can only be achieved through mass participation at the junior level.

There is no better example of this principle than that of the Chinese Sporting system, who, backed by government and access to the largest population in the world, have established an astonishing 1,782 sports schools catering for 185,000 athletes! Their projections are that 10% of these athletes will ascend the ‘triangle’ to the elite level, giving them enviable access to 20 000 potentially elite, medal-winning athletes at the 2008 Olympic Games!

South Africa cannot hope to compete with these numbers, and so simply trying to mimic this model is a futile effort. Thus, while mass participation is essential and must be encouraged, it is the proper and specific ‘farming’ of that talent that will make the ultimate difference to South African sporting fortunes. To use an analogy from the agricultural industry, one can attempt to turn the entire country into arable land, but if the crops are not fertilized, watered and harvested at the right time, 99% will go to waste. Similarly, the entire country can (and should) participate in some sport, as this dramatically improves the chances of discovering another Ernie Els, Makhaya Ntini, or Kabamba Floors, but in the absence of adequate talent identification, coaching and management, talent will slip through the cracks. Mass participation merely increases the chances of discovering talent, but it does not proactively bring it through. Upon reflection, the strength of the Chinese sports programme is not the 200 000 athletes at various levels in sports schools, it is the astonishing 20 000 qualified coaches who have been trained to develop that talent, to grow and harvest it to produce Olympic medals.

At its most basic then, a successful sporting system is one which ensures that the best athletes are in contact with the best coaches. It is simple as that. There are therefore two variables that must be addressed – the athletes and the coaches. Unfortunately, there is a third variable – administration or management – which all too often dominates the headlines of SA sport and wedges itself between the other two, but this is another matter, for discussion in another article. Returning to the coaches and athletes, South Africa needs to ask: “Do we have the athletes?”, and secondly “Do we have the coaches?” The first question has been extensively debated, discussed and argued. We can point to our success at the junior level, the strength of our school sports and the occasional moment of sporting brilliance to suggest that we DO HAVE THE TALENT. The coaching, however, is another matter.

South Africa, to date, has no centralized coaching accreditation body. There is no single entity that has successfully implemented a system for coach education and monitoring. As a result, there is no systematic method for identifying talent, coaching that talent and then managing it at the high performance level. At this stage, it is essential to point out that coaches must fulfil different roles at different levels of the so-called performance pyramid. At the mass participation level, it is the role of coaches (supported by administrators) to teach basic skills, to create interest in sport and to give opportunities to all to play sport. As one moves further up the pyramid, the role of the coach becomes more specialized, and specialist position (defensive, attacking) or functional coaches (batting, bowling, fielding) must be trained and employed. The specific role of coaches in an ideal sporting system will be described in a future article.

The biggest problem facing sport in South Africa, then, is a lack of cohesion among the different levels, which results in failure to move talent through the system. In my opinion, the ideal sporting system can be represented as a pyramid, with four corners at the base. This is represented by the figure below. At the base are the Coaches and athletes, already described. We now introduce two new components - Financial support, and Management. It is with Management that I have included the essential role of sports science – without exception, the successful sporting nations have managed to implement scientific principles into the preparation of their athletes, and South Africa must do the same. If these four corners are present, then coaches will work together with sports scientists and managers to gather data, which is then converted, ultimately, to experience, which is passed onto the athletes with whom those coaches work. It is the cohesion and continuity provided by this system that will ensure growth in the system – in otherwords, all coaches will ultimately adhere to what has been established as ‘best practice’ for every given athlete.

Finally, it is my observation that there is no obvious link between success at the elite level and mass participation within the school system. Therefore, Australia, with its excellent elite sports system, still has one of the highest obesity growth rates in the world, with more children being completely inactive than ever before. Similarly, countries who have successfully implemented mass participation programmes do not necessarily go on to produce world class sporting performance. The key ingredient? In my opinion, coaching, which takes talent through a process that ultimately reaches the top of the pyramid (Figure), producing medals.

In subsequent articles, I will address the ideal sporting system and the role of coaches at each level, as well as the vital role of management and administration in ensuring that the pyramid can stand.

- Ross