Creating a culture of achievement in sport

When mission and vision statements became a 'thing' for U.S. swimming clubs in the early 2000s the club I was coaching had a go at creating its own. The process was both meticulous and often frustrating as staffers, administrators, and directors met, discussed, argued, and philosophized about what the club was all about. What did we want to achieve and how would we go about doing it? These questions are not as simple as they seem when some principals wanted to focus on high performance, others wanted their children to learn how to swim, and still others wanted a fun, youth sport recreational experience. Was there a way to address these desires in a simple statement? As it turns out, there is.

The goal of a process like this is consensus and this is important because without consensus whatever the process produces will be just somebody else's idea. With consensus participants in the process own the outcome. It's not the coach's vision or the board president's vision, it's our vision, our mission.

Here's the vision statement I'm referring to :

The Saluki Swim Club is a regional sports organization that provides opportunities for swim instruction, training, physical fitness, and competition within a culture of achievement. The Saluki Swim Club fosters healthy relationships, personal growth, and character development among athletes, coaches, and families through hard work, dedication, and open communication.

...within a culture of achievement, thanks to that phrase the undertone of everything we did was one of improving, learning new things, and doing better than before. We wanted our athletes to achieve, whatever that meant in terms of their ability. Was it fun? Of course, it had to be. Was it recreational? Yes, why not? Was it challenging? You bet! But it wasn't just those things. It was challenging for all involved whether children were learning to float for the first time or trying to qualify for the Olympic Trials. The culture of achievement pervaded the entire operation.

As Malaysia examines it own sport endeavors I am hoping that sooner rather than later it will focus on the overall culture of competition, coaching, and administration and have the courage to throw out yesterday's ideas. Almost weekly there are articles in the press that address some of the issues that need attention. Ranging from athlete attitudes to administrative and coaching decisions the articles address specific events or tournaments but the underlying issues are much larger and can be applied to almost all sports in Malaysia.

One has to notice that a culture of achievement seems to be missing in Malaysian sport. Blame for poor performance is passed around too freely and responsibility is only perfunctorily accepted. This needs to change.

Following the GE14 election Safek Mustaffa, a senior faculty lecturer at UiTM, noted that "Many NSAs are led by (BN) politicians, so they have to be open and also form a good relationship with the new minister.” He was addressing the potential shift in policies that the new Pakatan Harapan government might bring to sports and how sport association leaders, many of whom are associated with the now oppositional Barisan Nasional party, may have to step down.

Strongman leadership of Malaysian sport governing bodies is common and is often seen as the de facto way to govern these organizations. This also has to change. Doing the same old thing with different faces will have the same disappointing results as before. As I wrote previously the VIP leadership model is an easy way for the association to shirk responsibility. Once a VIP is put in place as the president or chairman he becomes responsible for the associations performance. Let's be clear: No one person can be responsible for everything an association does, or its successes or failures.

Establishing a culture of achievement means that the association -- all members of the association -- must somehow figure out how to improve and not to disingenuously pass this task on to someone else and then, through misguided ideas about loyalty or subservience, pledge to support the new leader, or the lone man in the arena, depending on how you want to look at it. Being famous, rich, or titled doesn't automatically translate into leadership success and the sooner we outgrow this idea the sooner sport associations can begin directing their own destiny.

Once associations are able to internalize a culture of achievement then things will begin to improve. But this will take a while. It's not an overnight transformation and this is where the danger lies. Press interviews and heady speeches by association big shots reinforce the notion that sport success is just one good idea away. Get the right coach or the right association president and gold medals will simply fall from the sky. It would be nice if this were true but we know it isn't. Changing culture in a sport organization takes a long time but if we decide it's worth it then we will be on the right track.