What if opportunity never knocks?

The adage that opportunity only knocks once probably isn't true but what if it doesn't knock at all? One of the key ingredients to athlete development is having opportunities to learn, practice, and compete in a sport. Without these opportunities an athlete's skills and their movement repertoire will be limited. Do young athletes in Malaysia have opportunities to learn and participate in sport activities? Opportunities that are plentiful enough and long enough to foster the development of talent?

I've written often about how athletes need opportunities to practice in order to develop their talents but I've never really addressed the scope of what this means. Sport talent takes a long time to develop but time is only one of the ingredients needed. Another is opportunity: opportunity to learn, practice, play, and compete.

Elite athletes who compete on national teams and represent their countries in international competitions are the best that a country has to offer. In Malaysia the quality of the current crop of national athletes is constantly under scrutiny. Why, for example, is the football team languishing in 173rd position in the FIFA rankings? What's so different now than when it reached its highest ever ranking of 73rd back in 1993?

With a few exceptions, other sports are in a similar predicament, the perception is that Malaysian sports have declined. Assuming this perception is true what is the possible reason for this decline?

Several stages occur during the evolution of an elite athlete from a youngster learning basic sport skills to one able to perform at their full potential. At younger ages athletes are building capacity to perform. They are learning skills, building physical literacy, and increasing aerobic capacity and strength. During this period they're practicing several sports and learning games and strategies. In short, they're learning how to become athletes.

As athletes age they gradually switch from building capacity to the utilization stage, which is where whatever capacity they have is used for performance. The crucial thing is that these stages are based on age and growth and can't be made up if they're missed. Top athletes today benefit from years of capacity training in youth sport programs. Countries with strong youth sport cultures will always have an advantage over those that do not have such a culture.

Malaysia does not have a robust youth sport culture and it's safe to say that athletic capacity of many of the national athletes has never been developed. Many top Malaysian athletes are highly skilled but they're competing against athletes from other countries who have enjoyed years of capacity building within a robust youth sport infrastructure.

To some the solution is training harder, getting a foreign coach, or some other fix that occurs during the utilization stage. There's nothing wrong with these things but they don't solve the basic problem. Capacity has to be developed at younger ages. If it isn't then the opportunity to do so disappears.

Malaysian sport associations have to figure out a way to offer year round opportunities for youth to learn, play, and compete. Without this the athletic capacity of these youngsters will never get a chance to develop and Malaysia will always be watching their best athletes struggle against those from countries with strong capacity building structures in place.