Tuesday, 15 November 2011

From cradle to pinnacle

What a week it's been! An unprecedented triple triumph was garnered in Taipei when our badminton fledglings wrested the mixed team title.

The doubles kept up an amazing tradition of Malaysian world junior doubles champions, with Nelson Heg and Teo Ee Yi being the seventh since the start of the series.

Zulfadli Zulkifli, also having captured the Asian Juniors and Commonwealth Youth Games crowns earlier this year, looks to be a most exciting prospect as  Lee Chong Wei's successor.

In Johor Baru, our junior men's hockey team accounted for Pakistan, Korea and India on a winning streak on the way to the final of the inaugural Sultan of Johor Cup.

They registered those wins in a most pleasing fashion -- bold, inventive and composed beyond their years, with a fresh and robust attacking approach.

With the senior men's  team seeing more august days recently,  this augurs well for a bright future for Malaysian hockey.

The much debated question is, what will happen to these youngsters? Will they make it to the senior grade and flourish just as handsomely?

Really, there's no straight and easy answer. Making the grade at the stratospheric heights of senior world and Olympic levels requires them to successfully negotiate the vagaries of being on the threshold of adulthood. Beyond sports, they do have a life and it's not just a simple matter of training well and training hard.

An athlete's life should be treated as a pathway to success. All factors that play a big and important role in their respective lives should be managed well.

But the problem is that there isn't any solid plan that road-maps our emerging top athletes all the way to the top and to stay at the top.

What we have is a rather vague notion and the occasional public exhortation that these youngsters should and would make it to the pinnacle of their sport.

To the casual observer, it might seem like there's a plan but that's jolly good for the meeting table, for general administration and logistical purposes but crucially often lends itself to providence than to actual design.

There is a tendency to adopt a cook-book recipe approach that doesn't take the actual needs of individuals into account in a holistic and comprehensive manner.

All the stakeholders in Malaysian sport who support and facilitate the athletes have an obligation to ensure that all our young hopefuls have such a plan.

Not some slap-dash excuse for a plan that sometimes takes things practically one day at a time. I have seen coaches coming in without a plan for the day's training, much less a carefully worked out programme that monitors all aspects that affect performance throughout the year.

Serious planning seems to be exclusive to senior athletes, with support services for junior athletes' medical and scientific training needs often deemed as barely tolerated expenditure.

It's easy to reward the successful but even easier to inadequately resource those who need faith and trust to succeed in a sustainable way.

To be fair things have improved a lot in recent years, but we are just doing the best we can, not the best possible.

Where there has been apparent progress, you will find that it's because we were emboldened to invest in resources due to our hosting major Games and the benefits from legacies coming in their wake.

A clear example is the National Sports Institute (NSI) itself - without the 15th Commonwealth Games that we hosted so memorably in 1998, I doubt we would be where we are at this point, looking forward to brighter days with the passing of the NSI Act 2011 by Parliament.

Young people need guidance from caring mentors and sympathetic adults who surround them on a daily basis.

Having been away from their families for long periods, athletes often lose touch with their parents, whose awkward attempts to control and rein their youthful excesses are more likely to enlarge the gulf between them. Often the interaction is confrontational and problematic.

Young people need to work things out, to learn to live with mistakes as part of the process. Unfortunately timely opportunities are often missed to guide and to offer wise words.

 Coaches and officials usually distance themselves. When they do feel that they must, they are let down by their lack of training.

 The courses that they had taken don't provide competencies to handle and positively influence young people. Relying on intuition alone is too risky and falling back on past personal experience may not correlate all that well and may backfire.

Our colleagues in other institutes such as the Australian Institute of Sport have a department that runs a programme called ACE (Athlete Career and Education) that manages young athletes' education and their lifestyles.

They have a scholarship system that is widely acknowledged as being successful in merging their athletes' sports interests with the responsibilities of a young life.

This is all managed by them, in a way that avoids disconnects that beset other systems that adopt a divide and rule approach. The Hong Kong Institute of Sports also adopted that approach after scrutinising various models from all over the world.

The core relationship in athlete preparation is a close triangle between coach and athlete, and between them and the medical and scientific support personnel.

I keep reminding my colleagues to advise athletes accordingly when encountering any behaviour that doesn't benefit their training objectives or their development as top high-performance athletes.

We shouldn't leave things alone to fester, eventually becoming major problems. I am convinced we will get it right with bold and creative approaches in assisting our young athletes to rise to the desired levels.

Status quo won't get us there; not in any sustainable way.

By Dr. Ramlan Aziz

Read more: NST

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