Re-thinking the mission of Malaysia's sport associations

The good news is Malaysia achieved its 7-gold medal target at the just completed Asian Games in Jakarta. The bad news is officials and the public expected more. The low-key announcement of the target signaled a low confidence level before the contingent even left for Jakarta. This particular competition was touted as the final test of the ambitious Podium Program, Malaysia's high performance scheme to raise its standard in international competition. That program will probably be judged as a failure now and high level analysis will try to determine why, and what, if anything, should take its place. If you listen carefully you can almost hear officials asking "What now?"

The bad news -- recent results from international games, a new government facing economic challenges, and the imminent Podium Program review -- could actually be good news. These issues may just be the 'perfect storm' of events that will jumpstart changes in the Malaysian sport structure. Officials need to look outside the Podium Program at the bigger picture of how sport works in Malaysia. Because of the money and other resources invested in the Podium Program it's an easy target for post-Games analysis but limiting inquiry to just the Podium Program will not yield the answers Malaysian sport needs right now.

Decision makers have essentially two choices: 1) They can decide that renewed emphasis on the typical sport development go-to's -- schools, talent ID, new leadership -- is a viable option only this time they'll do it better. This, obviously, is not a good idea. Or 2) They can enlarge and formalize the role that associations play in development, and, through practices like making future funding dependent on achieving strategic key performance indicators (KPIs), pass much of the development and performance planning to the sport associations. (A much better idea!)

The Podium Program has a small footprint that affects few Malaysian athletes and has no role at all in producing new athletes. Nonetheless, it is a vital component in the overall sport structure, but the kind of change Malaysia needs has to be much more wide ranging with more clubs, more coaches, more athletes, if sustained improvement is to be realized. The athlete pool needs to be deeper.

Embrace a broad definition of sport development

I wrote previously about how sport development should be defined and how Malaysian sport officials focus too much on the elite level of performance and almost not at all on increasing the size of the athlete pool.

The number of athletes involved in a sport at all levels has a significant effect on performance at the very top level. Currently Malaysia focuses on elite performance to the point of almost completely ignoring the 'grassroots'.

Development needs to be defined broadly. The athlete pool needs to be larger, organized, and understood demographically. This is not an easy task and, so far, associations have shied away from any large efforts at increasing the athlete pool in their sports. This is why the ministry should establish KPIs that address development issues, and then hold associations responsible for them through annual funding formulas.

Associations need to eliminate their 'super club' structures

Some sport associations have evolved into super clubs by getting all top athletes from clubs around the country to join their own nationalized training programs. These programs typically have top coaches and sport science support from the National Sports Institute or other experts. Athletes participate in these programs on a long-term basis, sometimes for years. The Badminton Association of Malaysia has even gone so far as to coerce players into leaving their clubs if they want to play in high level tournaments.

Presumably the quality of training in these super clubs is high but these kinds of programs are not beneficial to the long-term health of Malaysian sport for four reasons:

  1. Clubs are the lifeblood of sport development and poaching athletes so they can join nationalized programs cripples the club system.
  2. Super clubs discourage other clubs from participating in national sport endeavors. Clubs and coaches have little motivation to produce top level athletes if they're only to be snatched up by the national association when they reach the elite level.
  3. A super club structure effectively means that there is only one club in the country. In terms of overall development super clubs are a step backward. It may be thought to promote the best training scenario for the sport's top athletes but realistically the return on investment from such programs is limited and conducted at the expense of all other athletes not yet at this level.
  4. Getting out of the training business will free up funds to spend on development programs. Sport associations say that lack of funding is one of the reasons they don't have adequate developmental programs. By ditching the super club model the money saved can be redirected to development.

The performance of super club athletes is claimed to be a motivating factor for younger athletes so that they will persist in their training and eventually rise to the level where they too can represent the country. This idea assumes that younger athletes have the opportunities to do this; the coaches who can offer instruction, training, and mentoring; a competition schedule that supports development; and transparent pathways for progress. The super club model provides none of these things. In fact it effectively prevents them from happening.

Sport associations are administrative bodies, they should not be in the business of training athletes. The current evolution of associations into super clubs has hurt club development. Strengthening the club system is critical to future sport success.

National team qualification needs to be more transparent

The super club model also clouds the issue of national team selection. How can athletes who are not part of the nationalized program ever be selected for international competitions? Without a clear answer to this question athletes have little reason to focus on their training, and no matter what level they are at presently their motivation to 'qualify' for the Malaysian national team is diminished.

Because of backroom lobbying, association politics, and opaque funding issues the path to the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, or any large international fixture rests only partially on performance. The rest is determined by factors completely outside the athlete's control. This creates a poor motivational and training environment.

Obviously it is easier to select athletes in some sports than others. Team sports or sports that are judged, for example, pose unique problems for selection committees. Additionally teams need to be formed well in advance of competitions so that players can develop the dynamic so important to team success.

Other sports, those measured with time, distance, and weight -- the so-called cgs sports (centimeters, grams, and seconds) -- can be much more straightforward with their selection process. A simple trials competition to select the national team prior to an international games would assure the respective association that the best athletes were selected. This method of talent selection was discussed in a previous article.

The path to the national team should be transparent and fair. All athletes, whether they are part of a nationalized program or not, should understand what it takes to become a member of a national team and have the opportunity to participate in the selection process.

The sport hierarchy in Malaysia must appreciate the motivational aspect of making these processes transparent. Sport is a meritocracy and selection processes should be put in place that reinforce this.

The future of Malaysian sport lies with the sport associations. Any national review of sport structure and policy should aim to strengthen the associations and begin to insist that sport development become their primary mission.