The making of champions

natasha_medalEvery time a national representative sport team leaves this country there is a sense of expectation for success regardless of the level of competition in which the athletes are involved.
Some would suggest that this is as it should be.
But is that really the case?
Is it that we are so anxious for success that we do not ask all of the right questions?
Getting started
From the very moment that an individual begins to practise a sport some believe that he should be on the way to success. We ignore a whole range of things.
Much depends on the pace at which the individual develops an aptitude to the skill requirements of the particular sport and this relates to the physical and mental disposition of the individual.
The age of the individual does not matter. All persons being introduced to a sport must go through the same stages. It is true however that some may move through this or that stage faster than others but they go through the stages nonetheless.
As with all subject areas the learning process begins at the earliest stages of a child’s life. We know that an individual learns fastest in the first five years of life and this is a universal truth. It therefore means that if we introduce children to physical activity in these formative years what they learn will stay with them for the remainder of their lives. The problem for many of our children is that parents pay very little attention to their children’s engagement in physical activity at this early stage because they seem to think it a natural occurrence that does not have to be taught.
In the formative years the child is engage din physical activity through simple play. It is of immense help for the child to interact in such activities with older persons especially parents as they learn what they see and often repeat what they hear.
There must be no pressure on the child at the early stages to engage in a single sport. Instead he should be exposed to as wide a range of physical activity as possible.
We must therefore emphasise the role of parents in the life of the child in the formative years. If parents live sedentary lives then it is going to be extremely difficult for them to facilitate early entry into physical activity by their children. They must find ways of getting themselves to work along with their children to get started on an active lifestyle such that later in life it is sustained.
Many seem to think that coordination comes naturally to children. This is not the case. All individuals have to be taught coordination.
While we all learn to walk and even run we are not all coordinated. This is the reason hy we see so many children, when asked to march, match right hand with right leg and left hand with left leg. The reason for this is lack of coordination.
Some athletes can emerge and appear to do well, generally, but because of lack of coordination, fail to real the stage of excellence in any particular sport. This is the reason we find players on a national football team having to be trained to kick and/or pass a ball. To the professional coach this is a waste of his valuable time since such basic skills ought to have been acquired much earlier in the life of the individual. At the national team level the emphasis is on establishing set plays and adopting strategies to win matches not engage in the fundamentals of the sport.
Physical education teachers are trained to introduce children to the coordinative skills necessary for them to perform physical activities well.
Our failure in this country to introduce physical education teachers at the pre and primary schools inevitably leads to the crass deficiencies we witness amongst our secondary school athletes in different sporting disciplines.
Trying to teach individuals the fundamentals of physical activity and sport later in life is extremely difficult. This often leads to absence of interest, frustration and early exit from sport.
Some athletes are pushed into specialisation of sport too early.
Admittedly there are some early specialisation sports such as gymnastics and swimming. The majority of sports however are not of this type and hence children are encouraged to play a variety of sports until they attain a level of maturity and exposure that allows them to make choices in respect of specialisation.
There are some athletes who stay with more than one sport even as they mature.
Many recall the exploits of FO Mason, the Trimminghams, the Ballantynes and Michael Findlay all excelled in multiple sports.
For some athletes, however, early specialisation is a curse. Some coaches are so insistent on early specialisation that when the individual leaves the sport early they fail to acknowledge the role they played in it.
Some coaches and parents are convinced that the early performances of their charges is enough to warrant having them pushed to do more too early in a particular sport. Often they mistake improved performances that accompanies the growth spurt with excellence and so hasten to get better results through workloads that defy the other development aspects of the child.
We can all recall young children who displayed talent in this or that sport early in life but who simply fell by the wayside after having suffered from burnout and accompanying frustration.
It is a common practice in St Vincent and the Grenadines to hasten young athletes into competition.
There is such a thing as competition readiness. If the athlete is not prepared for competition it may be a damaging experience.
The experienced coach takes very special care to ensure that the individual is introduced to competition at an appropriate level.
Engagement in competition must not just be based on age. Care must be taken to ensure that there is a match between the competition and the training age and maturity of the individual.
There is no one size fits all approach.
Some children mature faster than others. Some may have the benefit of parents who took them through the formative years engaging them in physical activity while others have no such experience.
Appropriate competition must be sought and the young athlete helped through the experience.
As the athlete develops his all-round competencies in the sport he is then exposed to higher and more complex forms of competition.
The foregoing emphasises once more the importance of parents in the physical and sporting development of the child. Parents must work alongside the coaches with their children to ensure that they are all on the same page regarding understanding and appreciating the developmental pathway being followed.
This is the reason that the red flag is raised when coaches seem to have almost all of their charges engaging in the same training regimen at the same time. The requirements of each athlete are very different and must be catered for appropriately. This is true even in team sports.
Competition is essentially a matching of skills on the field of play. Athletes have to be appropriately prepared for competition at all times.
Support teams are critical to the success of athletes in preparing for and participating in competitions.
Vincentian athletes in different sports are at a severe disadvantage. There are no real support teams beyond the coach, chaperone and team manager. There are no accompanying physicians, physiotherapists, sport psychologists, sport nutritionists who consistently work with them through any given year. We are woefully deficient in these areas in St Vincent and the Grenadines.
We fail to understand when an athlete is overawed at a competition when merely being ushered onto a competition arena surrounded by 80,000 spectators.
We fail to understand why our athletes get depressed when he arrives at a competition and witnesses the quality of the equipment of the other competitors and the confidence level they bring to the particular event.
Every coach wants his athlete to be on a national team. They spare little effort assisting in accessing what is required to have larger teams. They make demands but have no interest in understanding even each other and the issues that impact the selection processes. This holds no interest for them.
The champion
Renowned coaches suggest that it takes six to eight years of intense preparation for an athlete in any sport to be transformed into a world champion.
Unfortunately, most athletes, parents and even coaches do not seem to agree. They want results every time the athlete competes regards of his level of maturity in the sport, experience and performance readiness.
While some may look at the Brazilian football protégé, Neymar, and shower praises on his football prowess, he recognises that he still has a long way to go to get to the all-round football skill capability of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo of Argentina and Portugal respectively.
It is the same in all sport.
It takes time to produce a champion.
The level of discipline required is remarkable and it can often become quite demanding on the individual. The rewards are however well worth the wait.
It is the years of dedicated training and appropriate competition that yields the champion.
Here in St Vincent and the Grenadines we demand medals without engaging in any sort of analysis relative to the development of the athlete.
Equally, we fail to compare the performances of our athletes with the rest of the world. We only seek to compare them with the top ten performing nations. We forget how many countries compete in sport globally and of the significant differences that exist between us in terms of the developmental pathway pursued, access to funding, equipment , facilities and competition.
We have time only for champions.