Who owns the athlete?

Some time ago there was a serious conflict that arose in netball here. The issue related to whether students should be able to represent their clubs ahead of their schools in the national competition.
In more precise terms the matter was that over the past several years it has become the norm that following the conclusion of the Inter Secondary Schools Netball Tournament, an Inter Secondary Schools team would be selected to commence training for the Windward Islands Secondary Schools Games which takes place at the end of the academic year. Inter Sec, as the Inter Secondary Schools team is called, would also be registered as a team to compete in the national Netball Tournament organised by the Netball Association.
What happened during the 2008/9 academic year, was the fact that the Inter Sec team found that some of the selected athletes were being asked to represent their respective clubs. At the time, the individuals responsible for the Inter Sec team was operating on the assumption that once a child is a student, he/she falls under the ambit of the school and by extension, the Ministry of Education. Based on this assumption it was thought that the fact that individuals acting for and on behalf of the Ministry of Education selected students, the matter of which organisation the student represents would be very clear.
Unfortunately matters took a very strange turn when it appeared that parents were brought into the matter as some claimed that it was the right of the parents, not of the school or of the Ministry of Education to determine the children’s participation in a national championships that was not itself organised by the Ministry.
Some hastened to call on the Ministry to make its position clear once and for all on the matter.
In the end the students involved were allowed to represent the club because, it was argued, the parents had given consent. Some did not take kindly to the decision.
In the end however, the students who did not participate with the Inter Sec team were therefore declared ineligible to represent the nation in the Windward Islands Games that was hosted by the Ministry of Education of St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Some history
The matter of students being called upon to represent their schools versus clubs has long since been addressed in this and other Caribbean countries.
Here in St Vincent and the Grenadines we have had the St Vincent Grammar School participating in national competitions several decades ago. At the time there was never any doubt as to which institution the student had to represent.
Indeed, it is the norm that once the child is a student, any activity in which the school is directly involved and for which he/she is selected, the school receives priority. It was also understood as well that once the Ministry of Education selected a national schools team to participate in any competition, it was to be treated as if it were the respective schools of the selected students itself that was being represented. The students therefore had no choice but to represent the Ministry.
The reality at the time and some believe is still the reality is that the clubs are usually post school and therefore should yield to the school and by extension the Ministry of Education when there is any potential conflict.
During the course of the current academic year the matter has been brought to the front burner once again and the accepted position is really a reversion to what obtained in the past. The situation of the 2008/9 academic year is therefore an unfortunate aberration.
There are some who would however quickly point to the role played by coaches in the aforementioned situations. They claim that in a number of cases it is the coach who precipitates the conflict where none should really exist.
The reality is that here in St Vincent and the Grenadines some coaches seem only too anxious to adopt a practice that they have seen in some other countries where coaches appear to own the athletes under their charge.
There are some coaches who, once an athlete trains with them, appear to behave as though they own the individual and engages in a sort of relationship where the athlete and his/per parents are called upon to be blindly loyal almost at their peril.
Some years ago we had a situation where one coach ran into direct conflict with the principal of the St Vincent Grammar School over whether an athlete should participate in a sport for which he had been selected to represent the school in a national Inter Secondary Schools Competition. At the time the coach was of the view that the athlete was much better at the sport for which he was coaching him and therefore should not be exposed to possible injury by participating in another competition.
Rather than approach the school’s authorities to engage in reasonable dialogue on the matter the coach took upon him/herself to make the decision for the athlete. The result was a very tense conflict.
We have also had situations where athletes have been selected for national duty and the parents and schools have been involved and their respective approval received but the coaches object because they hold the view that somehow they should have been involved in some way.
In many instances the respective national associations have found themselves embroiled in conflicts with coaches in instances where the former insist upon the right of the school and the Ministry of Education to insist on school first and club later.
It is an unfortunate truism that parents are often ill-advised by the very coaches who have laid claim to their children as of right.
In some cases parents have not been advised at all and find themselves totally out of sync with what is happening with their own children in respect of their involvement in sport.
Sometimes they allow the coaches to virtually become surrogate parents given their own eagerness to abandon the child as if facilitating their participation in a day care centre. Too often they would have left the child with the coach to occupy time while they go about their own business. In their eyes the coach is always right and this is attained without any attempt at understanding and appreciating the situation.
There is an urgent need for parents to play a more active part in their children’s involvement in sport. This is critically important to the child’s overall well being. Parents cannot and must not abdicate their responsibility for all aspects of their children’s development.
Schools in St Vincent and the Grenadines are a mixed bag when it comes to sport. On the one hand there are those that are particularly interested in sports and ensure that there is a structured approach to the administration of physical education and sport in the institution. On the other end of the spectrum are those schools where there is little or no interest in the twin disciplines. This latter grouping may not participate in one competition or another and not be bothered by this. Somewhere in the middle are those schools where all is left to the PE teacher who virtually does whatever he/she desires knowing that there is not the level of interest at the top.
We have had situations where students have been made to compete in the wrong age categories resulting in their disqualification as individuals and in some cases the disqualification of the school from the competition, much to the embarrassment of the leaders of the institution.
There are occasions on which the authorities at the school have absolutely no idea of what constitutes the preparatory exercises in which the members of the team are made to engage, including the hours kept, the location, the level of attention to the well-being of the athletes and the general conduct of all involved. In such cases the authorities at the school are none the wiser when conflicts arise between the requirements of the Ministry of Education, the athletes and their parents relative to selection and representation.
Clubs are usually intended for the young adult. Parents may allow their children to join clubs at whatever age they deem fit. This is often done to facilitate the honing of skills by coaches who are appropriately qualified. The intention is never to allow the children’s involvement with the club to conflict with their commitment to their respective schools. The two are supposed to be complementary not at odds with each other.
Those responsible for clubs must always be very aware of the fact that the school comes first until such time that the child graduates and leaves the institution.
It should be noted that in many instances even when an individual becomes a student of a university the latter often insists that the student’s first loyalty is to the institution. Athletes often require permission of the institution before they can represent their respective countries while the university is in session. They are not allowed to represent their clubs during this period.
Athletes in St Vincent and the Grenadines are often naïve in respect of their rights as individuals especially in the field of sports. They come to the coaches without much by way of knowledge and have little choice but to be obedient. The level of loyalty required by some coaches often borders on the ridiculous. Some play on the innocence of the student and push them to excess, well beyond the requirements of their biological development, creating long term problems for the child.
Some athletes are treated as little puppies, not being permitted to think or ask questions in respect of the rationale for this or that particular exercise or programme. Indeed, some athletes are not provided with programmes since some coaches fear that they may be perused by others and found wanting. Thus, instead of the child gaining an understanding of and appreciation for the work that is related to their sporting development in much the same way that they do in the classroom with regard to their academic development, they are left to think that there is something mysterious that they cannot understand where training for sport participation is concerned.
In their innocence many student athletes see themselves as beholden first and foremost to the coach.
It is most unfortunate that the aforementioned situations have emerged in St Vincent and the Grenadines. They bode no good for Vincentian sport or the society as a whole.
Coaches must understand that children belong to their families and the educational institutions to which they have been sent for their education. They do no belong to coaches.
Coaches cannot demand blind loyalty from children such that the latter are forced to make ill-informed and ill-advised choices between clubs and schools.
Sport is deemed to have many positive values inherent in it. Sport facilitates strong relationships based on trust, honesty, integrity, caring and sharing.
Unfortunately we seem to be some distance away from pursuit of the lofty ideals in sport here in St Vincent and the Grenadines.
There is need for us to be engaged in relationships involving all stakeholders – parents, schools, the Ministry of Education, coaches and national sports associations – working together in the best interest of the national good. Until we reach this stage we are doomed to endless conflict between the stakeholders. The biggest losers would be the athletes themselves.