Growing concerns over school sports potential risks

In the recent past some concerns have been raised about the number of events some athletes contest at the annual Inter Primary Schools Athletics Championships (IPSAC) and the Inter Secondary Schools Athletics Championships (ISSAC).
Some are concerned that too many athletes are being asked to compete in too many events at a single sport meet, often in a single day, and are therefore not being allowed the opportunity to benefit from adequate recovery time between events.
The Schools Games Committee of the Ministry of Education has agreed to engage the relevant medical and sporting authorities in the discourse in order to arrive at an informed decision to place before the government for final consideration.
Over the recent past we have witnessed a significant increase in the number of athletes participating in the annual ISSAC. This has to do with the increase in the number of secondary schools in the country.
The IPSAC has only recently been reorganised in a manner similar to the ISSAC. However, because there are approximately 60 primary schools, the Schools Games Committee agreed four zones to facilitate some measure of equity. Athletes in each of the zones compete for places in the finals using the same Arnos Vale Sports Complex, the largest track and field facility in the country currently. This was to ensure that everyone competed on the same size track, with more or less the same conditions, and with electronic timing.
It must be admitted that at the individual secondary school level there has been a decline in participation in their respective track and field competitions. Several of the schools report a lack of interest, especially among girls, in participating, not just in track and field athletics, but in almost all sports.
It has become something of an embarrassment to attend the Heats for some of the nation’s secondary schools and find scores of students sitting around looking at only a few athletes competing for their respective Houses. This is in stark contrast to years past when Heats lasted sometimes several days as the House Masters/Mistresses persuaded almost every student to contest to ensure that they made a contribution to the overall points attained in the lead up to the Finals.
Those were the days when the competition between Houses was fierce and parents got involved since they associated themselves with the institutions to which their children were assigned on entering the school.
With fewer students participating in the annual track and field competitions at their respective schools, teachers are having a major challenge getting broad representation at the level of the ISSAC. It is therefore not at all surprising that in some institutions a single student athlete may emerge as a sort of superhero having contested several events at the institution’s Finals.
Traditions die hard.
In the past it was very common for student athletes to compete in several sporting disciplines while growing up.
Many students played cricket, football and table tennis during their tenure at school. Several of them would have been good enough to make the school representative team in more than one sport in a single year.
One is not certain as to whether it was that in times past the parents ensured that their children were better fed and allowed them to engage in a variety of recreational and sporting activities. The reality was nonetheless that children were not asked to specialise as early as they are being asked nowadays.
Parents, whole communities and schools were all enthusiastically supportive of young athletes who proved themselves proficient in more than one sport.
There were whole families that showed the propensity to excel in several sports. In this case the Ballantynes of Frenches stands as an excellent example where one grandparent (St Clair ‘Rabbit’ Warner), both parents and all children represented St Vincent and the Grenadines in sports ranging from football, to athletics, to table tennis and netball.
The historical records of several educational institutions in this country would reveal that the winners of the coveted Victor and Victrix Ludorum titles would have been involved in multiple events at their respective school sports day. This has been something of an expected tradition.
Indeed, to win the titles the athletes would have been required to compete in several events so that even if they did not win all they would have at least received some points from each of the events in which they participated, thereby accumulating the requisite points.
House Masters/Mistresses, also monitor the chances of their best students and encourage them to strive after new records.
It is common to find an athlete at the ISSAC finals doing the 100m, 200m, 400m, 1500m, 800m 4 x 100m and the 4 x 400m. They would also have undertaken several field events. However, since the majority of field events are held ruing the Heats this is not really considered a humbug.
New approaches
Contemporary thinking in sport, especially in long term athlete development (LTAD) emphasises that in the early stages of a child’s life he/she should be encouraged to become proficient in basic movement skills.
As the child gets older he/she should engage in multiple sporting activities. While there are some sports like Gymnastics and Swimming where early specialisation is important, for the majority of sports specialisation takes place after 15/16 years of age.
It is unfortunate that here in St Vincent and the Grenadines we have some coaches who believe that they have spotted athletic talent in this or that individual and proceeds to inveigle parents to have the children participate in no other sport at an early age. In many cases these athletes suffer from burnout, also at an early age while the coaches turn their backs on them, often claiming that they lacked interest.
In some instances, the athletes never really get a chance to try another sport at which they may have been far more proficient.
The desire of some coaches to use athletes to elevate themselves rather than engage in the systematic and scientific approach to the sport, has left many a Vincentian athlete without any genuine opportunity to discover the sport for which they are really talented.
Too many coaches lack the scientific understanding of sport, physiological and emotional development to respectfully submit that this or that athlete is not suited to the sport that he/she works in. They often do not wish to lose athletes and prefer to destroy them rather than allow them to try another sport.
It is the same selfish attitude that has some athletes turning away from sport altogether after having recognised that they were duped by their coaches into believing that they were doing their best when in fact they were being kept to make up the numbers within a club or training squad.
Modern thinking also suggests that as athletes mature and specialise there must be a reduction in the number of events in which they participate. This is based on the claim that athletes need recovery time in competition.
Sport scientists argue that the body needs time to recover after a heavy load. In some sports the sport scientists have actually suggested the number of minutes and hours recovery time between events of different durations and intensity.
Admittedly, all individuals are not made up the same way. Those who usually engage in multiple events on the day of the Finals are usually much better prepared. They are the ones who are at an older training age, are usually more mature physically/physiologically and psychologically. More often than not they are also the ones whose parents are more committed to their involvement in sport and lend greater support.
There are some who are now calling for athletes to compete in fewer events on competition day. They recommend, as is already done in some countries, participation in no more than a specified number of events. For us here in St Vincent and the Grenadines, since the majority of field events are contested on different days, and usually one week apart from the Finals, there has to be a more studied approach as to what events are recommended and in what combination.
The Schools Games Committee of the Ministry of Education is correct in seeking the scientific advice of both the sports medicine specialists and the sport technical personnel, before making a firm recommendation to the Principals Association and the Ministry of Education itself.
There is no doubt that the health of the individual is of primary importance when considering the matter.
There are however other considerations that must play a part since this matter cannot be taken in isolation.
It is important that the present initiative of the Ministry of Education regarding the insurance of the students at the nation’s education institutions is most welcome.
Several years ago, a young athlete from Bequia, Cozier, collapsed and died during the Grammar Schools Road Relay. Many recall the javelin incident on the Grammar Schools Playing Field that left a student athlete dead. Happily, there has not been any such incidents since.
We can never be too cautious.
Good practice requires that our students be insured. It also requires of us that prior to engaging in any sort of physical activity and sport, our students are subjected to medical checks so as to avoid any incidents due to existing preconditions on the part of any individual child.
Period medical checks must be undertaken for all those who continue to be involved in sport and physical activity of a higher order. This is a fundamental principle.
Of course, it should also be common practice that the insurer of students would wish to recommend periodic checks for all the insured.
We are desirous of having a healthy nation. Our students are the future sportsmen and sportswomen. We must facilitate their growth and systematic development as athletes, adhering at all times to what is considered best practices.
The experts must be involved in research to point in the direction of what must obtain.
Our schools, however keen on winning; our parents, however eager to have their children excel in sport; our coaches, however desirous of earning glory through their achievements of their athletes, must inevitably respect the advice of the experts at the sport medical and technical levels.