Improvement by design!

    Artificial elimination of athletes from training and competition hinders sport development in Malaysia

    I've often wondered why many sport competitions in Malaysia are contested between states rather than smaller groups like schools or clubs, or even individual athletes. Whenever a state team is formed some athletes are going to be left out either because they aren't perceived to be good enough to be on the team or because each state may be limited to a certain number of athletes per team or per event.

    For large events like the Olympics, SEA Games, or Sukma it might make sense to focus on larger team divisions like countries or states. 6000 athletes and officials are reported to have attended the recently completed Sukma and over 10,000 athletes are in Rio right now. With events like these allowing anyone who wanted to compete to do so would have been a real burden for organizers. But other kinds of competitions often limit entries to state teams when it would make much more sense to use smaller divisions like clubs or schools, or even individuals in some cases.

    Opportunity to train and compete is one of the key components to sound sport development. When we artificially limit the number of athletes on a team we are, by definition, limiting the opportunity to compete. In some cases there is really no reason to do this so why it persists is a mystery.

    Malaysia needs more competitions that are open to all who want to compete especially for younger athletes. Why, for example, is the national schools competition contested by state when it makes more sense from an administrative perspective to organize it by school. This would be a developmental jackpot since it would also allow more students to compete.

    Limiting the number of athletes for administrative purposes is called artificial elimination in sport lingo. Any kind of elimination that takes place outside the competitive structure is artificial because it usually happens for no competitive reason.

    Sport associations need to assess competition rules that limit participation to insure that any limitations are legitimate and not done just because that's the way it's always been done. If we want more athletes performing at the highest levels then we need to get more athletes involved in competitive opportunities during their early years in the sport.

    When selecting athletes for training a different form of artificial elimination is taking place. Coaches or associations select those who are performing well for state squads at young ages, thus only training those who show promise, talent, or ability.

    I've said this many times and in many different ways: We don't know who will become a good athlete. Just because someone is performing well at a young age does not mean that they will continue to perform this way when they get older. This is one of the oldest and most persistent sporting myths I can think of and is the basis of most ill-conceived talent identification schemes. We don't need to identify talent, that will take care of itself. We need to be providing opportunities for youngsters to learn and compete so that they can develop any talent they may have.

    In the sport world we need to realize that certain things will happen naturally if we allow them. Provide opportunities for all youngsters to learn and compete in sports and Malaysia will find that it has an abundance of sport talent. The key to developing high performance athletes in Malaysia is not fiddling with issues at the top of the performance pyramid because this produces only small improvements. But handle matters at the bottom of the pyramid better and Malaysia will see an explosion of talent at the top in just a few years time.

    Bill Price ( is the owner and Chief Data Scientist at Sportkid Metrics.


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