#Article (Archive)

Failing our sportspersons – A shared perspective

May 15, 2013, 9:30 AM

As we watched the 2012 Africa Cup Tournament, London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the European Championship League, the Barclays Premier League and 2STV’s Bantamba from the comfort of our homes, many of us were probably wondering what on earth are we doing wrong that has made us failed to produce athletes who can match the likes of Usain Bolt, Balla Gaye, Serena Williams, Super Eagles of Nigeria and many others who set new world records in their respective disciplines.

Questions still stand as to what we are doing wrong. What role should Ministry of Youth and Sports, National Sports Council (NSC), Gambia National Olympic Committee (GNOC), National Sports Associations (NSAs) and Corporate Gambia play in order for us to attain sports excellence in the Gambia?

Do we have the leaders in NSAs that are capable of steering sport to the expected levels? Is our training scientific and researched? Is our university ready to take up Sports education and play the role that is expected from them in assisting the sports associations? Are we really supporting local coaches to attain high level coaching standards? Sport matters, from the spectators that fill up stadia roaring support for their favourite teams to a girl hitting a tennis ball hour after hour against a wall. Sport inspires passion and dedication which plays a central part in many people’s lives.

For all of us who take up sport, a good start in the early years is important. The young person hitting the ball against the wall for hours may be honing skills which could take him or her to Wimbledon or just to a Sunday morning game with friends at the Independence Stadium.

Either way, we are much more likely to get the pleasure and the benefit of sport and to keep the habit as we grow older, if we develop it early.

It is in school where most of us get our first chance to try sport. It is there that children discover their talent and their potential. They need high quality teaching of basic skills using a scientific approach. They also need opportunity to compete at a level in line with where their ability has developed. They need clear pathways into taking part at school, club and national levels, with the right coaching and the right support at every stage.

So my next questions then become: are our current teachers trained and qualified to cover this gap? Do we have the equipment for one to achieve the desired results? NSAs, as the technocrats, what are they doing to cover this gap? Are the Association of Secondary and Primary School Principals and Heads well versed with the current trends of sport in the Gambia or did they ever play sport in their lives, not to say at the highest level but acceptable achievement?

School sport is where it happens or fails, so do we have the right people in our schools and offices with prerequisites to handle these responsibilities? Is there a criterion used by Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education in selecting these school bodies that run school sport? Sport is for individuals striving to succeed — either on their own, or in teams.

However, those individuals, together or alone, need the help of others — to provide the facilities, the equipment, the opportunities.

So there is a key role to play for those who organise and manage sport — local authorities, sports clubs, sports governing bodies, National Sports Council, NOCs, corporates, media and the Government.

For the record, the notion that we can start preparing our athletes and teams for the next Olympic Games in Brazil in 2016 now, and that we want our Football Senior National Team (Scorpions) to prepare for the 2014 World Cup is only a pipe dream as the current state of affairs in sport is not conducive for that to happen.

There is need to re-design plans to create sporting opportunities for all — to create pathways of success for those who have the talent and the desire to rise to the top. There is need to re-design plans to help schools provide more and better sporting opportunities for our children, and to encourage people to carry on taking part in sport beyond the school years. There is need for all stakeholders working together to make our vision for sport happen.

There is need to place high emphasis now on the scientific approach to athlete development programme, by making sure that all sporting associations develop their long-term athlete development plans for young talented athletes to ensure that they attain high levels of excellence. Scientific research has identified that it takes at least 10 years or 10000 hours for talented athletes to achieve sporting excellence.

There are no short cuts. There are only two ways which young athletes can improve their performance; training plus growth and development.

Long-term athletic development (LTAD) is about achieving optimal training, competition and recovery throughout an athlete’s career, particularly in relation to the important growth and development years of young people.

If a long-term approach to training is not adopted there is likely to be a plateau in performance, when growth and development slows significantly. For some athletes it may result in their performance getting worse, which is what we see today.

There are five clear reasons for introducing the long-term athlete development approach:

•To establish a clear athlete development pathway

•To identify gaps in the current athlete development pathways

•To realign and integrate the programmes for developing athletes and sporting talent in the Gambia

•To provide a planning tool based on scientific research, for coaches and administrators.

•To guide planning for optimal performance

When a blueprint is in place, a document may now be used in all sporting circles to discuss sport.

It is necessary then that the principles of the LTAD will be used to review existing sporting initiatives led by the respective NSAs and inform any future initiatives.

It is also necessary that any academy or club talent development programs running under that respective sport association uses the LTAD in a similar way.

This will help that sport’s stakeholders to pull in one direction towards achieving that Sport’s goals and targets.

Sporting success depends upon having a structure in place that supports our talented young men and women every step of the way. Coaching, competition, facilities and support services need to be available at the appropriate level throughout the system not just at the elite end of sport.

Creating a linked, progressive system of talent development is vital if we are to provide an opportunity for the very best to emerge.

Identifying individuals with talent is a complex business and each sport has distinctly different physical characteristics and capacities that need to be clearly identified.

But achieving success at the highest level is also about desire, determination and mental toughness and these are less easy to measure and identify.

Successful sporting nations have created a clearly signposted pathway for talented young people and provided data to help identify those with the greatest potential to succeed.

Supporting individuals with talent will require continued investment in coach education. Coaches play a central role in the development of sport at every level.

Much good work has been done in coaching education in the country but it is important to see greater use of new technology to improve accessibility of coach education and a concerted effort to improve the quality and quantity of coaches in all sports.

Sport in the country should work with all the key agencies to undertake a review of coaching and coach education.

The National Sports Council should play a key role in having short courses that cater for these coaches, even if it means outsourcing the experts.

Coaching is central to the development of excellence. The coach has to be able to coordinate and manage other coaches, sports scientists and sports medicine support personnel, deal with the media and provide constant mentoring and support for their sportsmen and women.

In search of the best possible coaches we have in the past recruited and employed coaches from abroad.

While it is right to draw on the best expertise from overseas, it is vitally important that we support home grown coaches.

We need to see a greater investment in the identification and training of coaches from within this country who have the potential to work at this level.

We must ensure that top-class sportsmen and women with aptitude and desire to coach are encouraged and enabled to acquire the necessary skills.

As the demands of competitive sport continue to grow it is important to recognise that young people in talent development systems require lifestyle guidance and support to ensure that they do not sacrifice their education or career development for their sporting dreams.

Success at international level requires careful planning and thorough preparation for the performer, the coach and the sport.

The changes required to achieve a new level of excellence will take time. They require a significant change in culture in many sports and they will only be achieved through consistent, sustained funding and support.

The development of a National Sports Strategy through a governmental initiative, and the relationship that will be created between NSAs, the NOC and the Gambia College, that offer sports courses will have a significant impact on athlete development. This will ensure that each individual elite performer will be able to have access to top quality sports science, sports medicine, coaching and athlete education and career programmes.

These joint efforts are crucial to the fulfilment of the potential by our best athletes. World-class programmes will never of course be able to cover every sport and every international competitor, but improvements in the operation of the programmes are needed.

There is need for the NSC and the NOC to move to a more open appraisal of the individual performance plans.

All the various sports - and the athletes, coaches, and technical managers must be fully aware of what is required of them and that the ground rules will not be changed without due consultation.

The NSC and the NOC must develop strategies so that development funds are made available by Government. There is a need for Government to channel some funds annually from the national lotteries towards financing sports development as is the norm in other countries.

This is so because Government alone cannot afford to fund sport alone, this will be a pipedream.

The focus will be much more closely on target setting by national sports governing bodies and technical directors and on the achievement of targets by individual performers and teams.

The success or failure in achieving milestone targets in performance plans will be an important factor in deciding future levels of funding.

There is also a need for national sports governing bodies to have equitable and transparent selection and recruitment criteria, that they trawl as wide as possible and that they ensure that their world-class programmes are centred upon the needs of the individual sportsperson and avoid also chasing a pipedream.

Lawrence Bruce is the “Shadow” Executive Director at the Gambia National Olympic Committee but writes here in his personal capacity as a sportsperson.