Excellence in sport – a Vincentian imperative

Vincentians are thoroughly enthused about sport. They flock to sporting activities that bring to the fore the passion that imbues us all.
We do not however like to lose. When this happens we get depressed, frustrated and are only too anxious to point accusing fingers, rightly or wrongly (since it does not matter to us at the time) at those we deem responsible for the failure on the field of play.
The niceties of the origins of the athletes’ involvement in physical activity and sport is never given due consideration, nor is attention paid to the years of involvement in sport at critical stages in the child’s development.
It is, more often than not, assumed that somehow these athletes should have been prepared enough to provide us, the spectators, with victory that would leave us all feeling good at the end of the competition. Nothing else really matters.
It is almost always the case that patrons of sport competition feel a sense of righteousness in demanding success from our athletes regardless of factors that may have rendered our expectations more sombre.
In sport, as in life, we strive after excellence. This is good and most admirable. However, that pursuit of excellence must inevitably be in tandem with a development strategy that is realistic; that takes into condition the right type of introduction to sport and progress through a pathway that is ideally suited to the physical, emotional and training capacity of the individual at each stage.
Catriona Le May Doan, one of Canada’s most remarkable athletes of all time insists that “Excellence does not happen overnight. Excellence in sport is a lifelong journey. It continually needs to be nurtured.”
For her, life is rich with examples of excellence. She proclaims that excellence is all around us if we only take the time to look carefully. In every society there are people quietly pursuing and achieving excellence in some aspect of life. Perhaps it is in recognition of this fact that the International Olympic Committee has placed the pursuit of excellence as one of its jewels.
Pathway to excellence in sport
John O’Sullivan (Changing the Game Project) appeals to parents, teachers and coaches to understand that children would maintain an interest and participate in sport of they get the right start.
Children love to play because it is fun. One has only to stand and look at the ways in which children utilise the toys with which they are provided by parents in the environment around them to enjoy themselves. In such situations they are under no pressure to succeed. If things go wrong they may fuss a bit and even cry but they move on.
The average child falls several times and despite crying from the pain and/or shame of the fall, goes back to the same activity time and time again until he/she masters it. Parents merely help along the way, not doing it for the child, not shouting commands at the child to desist from the practice, allowing the child to engender confidence in him/herself and eventual mastery of the particular activity. Children learn to engage in problem-solving very early in life.
It is the same with regard to sport.
We begin by allowing the child to engage in fundamental movement skills to be able to get around without the help of others. This is the very beginning of physical literacy. It is what we also do with regard to numeracy and literacy.
Learning movement starts at birth. Mastering movement is a lifelong process that ends with death.
Because a child learns fastest in the first five years of life, this is the most critical stage at which to encourage movement and is the start of one’s introduction to play and ultimately sport.
All experts in physical literacy and sport agree that at this early stage in a child’s life play must be fun. Note, however, that at this stage the child is allowed to play as many games as possible with the child being allowed an input in determining what he/she wishes to play, when and for how long. There must be no pressure put on the child to get serious about any particular sport. At this stage the child engages in physical activities that involve walking or running, jumping and throwing, all essential elements of movement in life.
At the early stages of a child’s life parents are of critical importance to all aspects of his/her development. The presence of and participation in play with a child serves as an asset in engendering self confidence in the child in all aspects of each developmental stage.
We have come to recognise that when parents shout at their children regardless of the task in which the child in engaged at the time they shatter the child’s confidence in pursuit of excellence at that particular time. The child becomes afraid to do the wrong thing merely to avoid the harsh reaction of the parent and shies away from further experimentation and innovation.
Often it is the parental influence on the child’s early attempts at acquiring and mastering movement skills that so damages the child’s psyche that he/she never willingly returns to any form of play or sport in life.
O’Sullivan argues that when children are being introduced to sport we must always ensure that we create the environment that at once allows the child to have fun, be safe, under no pressure, free to experiment and ask questions about things that pose challenges. He speaks of creating an environment that appeals to and keeps children for as long as possible.
From the very beginning of a child’s life, therefore, parents are facilitators of their introduction to physical literacy and sport. As they grow and develop these fundamental movement skills teachers and coaches become co-facilitators of their mastery.
In today’s sport we can readily point to athletes for whom their engagement has little to do with having fun. Unfortunately, when we cease to have fun in practising sport we lose sight of its reason for existence.
Values and sport
From birth children are exposed to values. They first learn the values of the family. They see these in the actions of their parents and siblings everyday of their lives. It stands to reason therefore that in early childhood children’s behaviour reflect the values of their families. It is what they have learnt. They in turn bring these values with them to their physical activities, including sport.
Sport is about human interaction and so children are exposed to each other’s values and those of the coach during their engagement in sport. At this most critical juncture therefore coaches must pay due attention to the values to which they expose the children while practising sport and that includes their own values.
Coaches often appear insensitive to the values of the children to whom they introduce their sport. They tend to impose their own values on these children, directly and indirectly. When coaches shout at children not all of them react the same way because of their respective early socialisation experiences. Unfortunately, when children cry or show any form of dissonance from the coaches’ behaviour he/she is often humiliated before the rest of the athletes and made to feel less than human, less that someone with any potential to play the game. This results in the athlete not returning to the sport or the coach being insistent that he does not want the child around him and his group of athletes.
Some coaches display values that are so much at variance with some of the athletes in their charge that the latter are subjected to all sorts of harassment for not willingly parting with their home or church grown values. They are made the laughing stock of the group by the coach, forcing them to either do what is required to fit in or get frustrated enough to quit for g ood.
We ought not to be surprised therefore at the large number of children who, from an early age have developed an aversion to sport. It is an unsafe emotional environment.
Coaches often fail to understand their role in the lives of the children who are in their charge, learning a sport. They adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, assuming that each child is at the same chronological age and therefore is automatically at the same training age, physical development age and emotional age and must accept the values he/she imposes on the entire training group, regardless of their social backgrounds and life experiences. This is very wrong and wreaks untold damage on many an individual relative to his/her entry and longevity in sport.
There is a school of thought that suggests that it is important that coaches, like teachers, encourage children to get into the habit of stating their values, sharing them with the training group. This done, it is possible to work with all of them to foster positive values that serve them in sport as well as in life. The sport arena is actually a school of life as much as the home and the school.
There is ample evidence that when asked about the qualities of a good coach, one they like and from whom they learn most, they identify respect and encouragement, eagerness to listen, easy and clear communicator, knowledge of the sport and a positive role model (www.youthreport.projectplay.us).
According to O’Sullivan parents and coaches must engage and encourage children to freely discuss the values they see on display in sport. Coaches must also facilitate such a practice after play. In this way the children grow up in the sport being always aware of the importance of engendering positive values as much as they are encouraged to do in the home, at social gatherings and at school.
Since values are important to the life of an individual and shapes his/her character at every developmental stage, it is important that athletes are encouraged to inculcate and practise values that enhance the human personality and enrich society.
If we are serious about striving after excellence then the coach, like the child’s parents, must display positive values and so serve as a worthy example at all times.
It is therefore imperative that coaches and parents discuss the values being displayed by children at play so that they are all on the same page relative to the child’s development.
Vincentian reality
How many people do we know who have never played sport?
How many people do we know who, having attempted to learn a sport, was driven away by their first experience on the field of play?
How many shied away from engagement in physical activity for fear of being scoffed at by their peers who were deemed more proficient and offered up as examples to follow?
Here in St Vincent and the Grenadines the answers to the aforementioned questions would probably surprise us. We should not be surprised.
We must always ask ourselves whether the sedentary lifestyle that so many Vincentians have come to adopt as a feature of ‘development’ emerged from the very bad experiences they had in their early developmental stages in life.
We cannot afford to continue with an archaic approach to physical activity and sport. Times have changed. Sport is changing.
We are victims of non-communicable and chronic non-communicable diseases and the latest information on these debilitating diseases on Vincentian society is troubling.
Our approach to resolving the problem is in revisiting the point of departure; what happens after the child is born.
Physical literacy must become a Vincentian imperative.