Over the past several years we have had numerous challenges is sport. We will always have challenges but what matters is how they are addressed.Sometimes we wonder whether some of those who raise concerns are really as interested in the development of sport and athletes as they claim.
Do we take things too far?
Are we really conscious of the impact of some of the things we do?
Are we aware of the sensitive nature of athletes involved in high-level competition?
The athlete’s support team
In the past individuals got involved in sport because they had an interest. Often they were responsible for getting themselves in shape and learning the craft of the specific discipline. In some cases a coach was involved in helping athletes hone their skills.
Today, sport has become a scientific discipline. Athletes are no longer expected to do everything themselves and the same holds for the coach working with athletes.
In sport today the athlete has what is considered a full support team. That team always involves parents and/or guardians, the coach, the physical trainer, the physiotherapist, the nutritionist, sport psychologist, manager and communications officer.
The support team is of immense importance to the well being of the athlete and this has been borne out by the successes of athletes in different sports played around the world.
In small, economically weak countries as we have in so many of our Caribbean islands the athletes do not have the opportunity to benefit from support teams of the order addressed here. This unfortunate reality may well explain the deficiencies we see in athletes who we identify very early as having the talent required to move on to the elite and professional levels.
We have often come to believe that athletes make themselves. That is far from the reality.
Athletes must have support from a team of people each of whom has a specific contribution to make to their success.
It all begins with the home. Parental support is the most important in an athlete’s success. Whether we are speaking of a single parent or otherwise parental support is what it takes to get the athlete off to a good start in sport.
To the extent that the athlete is encouraged to participate in physical activity at an early age to that extent he/she is likely to stay active and to engage in sport for life. Once the parent stays with the child, observes his/her at training, is present at sport competitions and offers words of encouragement, engages the coaches to keep abreast of developments, the athlete is likely to succeed.
Of course some parents seek to do too much. Early success leads them to apply too much pressure on the child almost as if he/she is a coach. The net result is that the athlete is forced to train harder, not out of a systematic programme but more out of a desire on the part of the parent to get the child to be successful in his/her eyes.
Some coaches, anxious to continue to benefit from the good graces of the enthusiastic parent, allow the athlete to do extra without acknowledging the potential damaging consequences.
The successful athlete is the one who had good home support even if it came from a guardian in the absence of biological parents.
It is most unfortunate that in the Caribbean we tend to associate psychological support with persons having mental illness.
The reality is that we do need to appreciate that the athlete has a psychological side and that this must receive as much attention as does the other components that allow for improved performance during his/her career.
It is a sad reality that we often completely ignore this aspect of the athlete to his or her detriment.
There is a reason that we have sport psychologists working with high performance athletes. The latter have to be decidedly focused at all times. The slightest distraction can inhibit performance.
It is unfortunate that in the Caribbean we take this aspect of an athlete’s development very lightly. We notice this all of the time and we laugh at any suggestion that the athlete has been distracted.
Kineke Alexander, 2007
In 2007 Kineke Alexander was representing St Vincent and the Grenadines at the 15th Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She had been attending College in the US, University of Iowa, where she established all sorts of records, and her coach, James (Jimmy) Grant, had been taking her gradually towards elite performance. Her four years in College allowed her to understand what was required of her and so she responded well to what was happening.
On the eve of her 400m preliminaries the leadership of Team Athletics St Vincent and the Grenadines (TASVG) learnt of the death of her coach back in the US and advised the team’s management to keep the information away from her until after her competition.
Unfortunately, the assistant coach at the College, seemingly oblivious to the psychological impact the information would have on her and her performance, communicated directly with her informing her of her coach’s passing. TASVH immediately advised procurement of the services of a sport psychologist, Margaret Ottley, a university lecturer and active sport psychologist with teams from the US and Trinidad and Tobago. This was done.
Clearly Kineke had been ruffled. The report from the sport psychologist was that there was little that could be done in the time allowed and so we could expect nothing b y way of a performance anywhere near her best.
So said! So done!
Sport is a scientific undertaking and to fail to acknowledge the importance of emotional stability of the athlete at any level is to commit to overall failure in the sport. This is all the more so for the elite athlete who has to be particularly focused.
Courtney Williams 2015
Courtney Williams qualified along with Kineke Alexander to represent St Vincent and the Grenadines at the Pan American Games last month. The two track and field athletes were not the recipient of universality places but earned the right to participate by virtue of attaining the qualifying standards set by the continental organisation for track and field athletics, the Association of Pan American Athletics (APA).
It was therefore most disturbing and embarrassing that just prior to Courtney Williams’ participation in the Pan American Games we should have despicable statements being made challenging his performance at the meet where he met the qualifying standards.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect to the statements was that some of those involved are current coaches of the very sport in which he is involved.
The governing body for athletics, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), officially approved the performance of Williams when he was times at 20.59 in finishing second in the 200m prior to Toronto. However, it does appear that some of our local coaches have an issue with his performance and consequently took to the airwaves and to social media to make their views known.
That some people were only too eager to take delight in the discourse about a Vincentian athletes at a major international competition forces one to consider whether or not there is any genuine interest in the well being of our athletes.
At no time did it appear that any consideration was given to Williams’ psychological state of mind reading all of what was being circulated.
At issue therefore is whether the coaches involved as well as others who facilitated, encouraged and perpetuated the unsavoury and untimely discussion consider the psychological preparation of an athlete for high-level competition of any importance.
Whatever happened to national pride?
Is an athlete not, like the rest of society, to be considered true until proven otherwise or are have we become so sick that we are eager to do anything whatsoever to tear down others?
How do these people live with themselves?
Importantly, how do they work with athletes?
Is it only the athletes that they train that can be considered legitimate?
What sport will they target next?
The disgusting discourse on Courtney Williams was such that whatever happened at the competition he would not win the favour of those involved. Had he repeated his time there would have been an explanation from those involved that would have aimed at disregarding it. As it turned out he did not repeat and we dare suggest here could not have even come close given the severe distractions of a number of individuals whose agenda may well be different from what is normally considered in the best interest of the athlete or of St Vincent and the Grenadines.
This is not the first time that we have seen this kind of conduct and it is unfortunate that we have had the spectre of the media facilitating such a discourse.
What can we expect in the future?
Which athlete will become the next target of the kind of venom displayed in the recent past?
What is Courtney Williams to do going forward as he strives to represent his country at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, next year?
It is difficult to accept that this is where we have sunk as a people.
St Vincent and the Grenadines certainly deserves better.