Using the team selection process to boost motivation and increase athlete participation

Two top gymnasts were not selected for the Malaysian SEA Games squad. The article in The Star noted that Wong Poh San and N. Shasangari Sivaneswary "have found out that past glories account for nothing." Not answered in the article was the question of whether the girls were expecting to be picked based on "past glories" or whether they realized that their abilities were simply not as good as the athletes who were selected for this particular competition. Sport performance varies. We're not always 'on top' or at the peak of our abilities so it's quite normal that our rank within the pool of athletes might change from time to time.

Whatever the was on the minds of the athletes, the selection committee, or the article's author we don't know but the process of athlete selection for national and international competition has an indirect effect on motivation and subsequently the overall development of sport within Malaysia. This is a topic that is rarely looked at because the current process of selection has been in place for some time. Consequently it has become one of those things that is 'settled' so why reexamine it? It's done without anyone giving it much thought.

Athlete selection is often thought of as a standalone process, one that exists by itself with no connections to the athlete development process. However, the selection process can be leveraged to boost motivation within the athlete pool and increase the number of athletes aiming for high performance status.

If designed properly sport associations can use the selection process to increase athlete enthusiasm for training and competition. If designed properly all athletes will have a clear path to their spot on a national team or state squad. Naturally not all will make it but everyone will at least know what will be required to be selected.

In sports measured by centimeters, grams, or seconds -- the CGS sports -- trials could be held with the top two athletes in an event, or whatever number is permitted by the Games organizer, being automatically selected for the state or national team. This transparency would provide a clear path to athletes in training and maximize enthusiasm amongst those hoping to make the cut.

Trials are the best way for this process to unfold. However, Malaysia has many athletes training overseas which make the idea of a trials-only selection process unlikely. If the best athletes are training overseas then some way to assess their current performance is needed. This assessment must be fair to both those overseas and those remaining at home. Selection based on past success should not be part of the process.

Establishing qualification standards and sticking to them makes the entire selection process transparent to athletes and coaches. Athletes with the desire, passion, and work ethic are motivated by these standards.

But as easily as motivation can be created by a selection structure it can just as easily be destroyed by one. When athletes training with teams and clubs in Malaysia see foreign based athletes getting picked over locally trained athletes the level of motivation in local athletes is diminished and they lose interest in something that, to them, seems rigged against them. It is often argued that the foreign-based athletes are better than the local athletes but is this claim ever tested in any meaningful way?

Selecting foreign athletes has to be carefully considered. Are they currently training? What have they done recently in competition and is it better than results achieved by local athletes? In all cases the locally trained athlete should be given the benefit of the doubt. Foreign-based athletes, if selected, must be clearly better than any local athlete. Currently this dynamic seems to be going the other way with foreign-based athletes given consideration over local ones without any evidence other than past results to support them.

The small number of high performance athletes in Malaysia makes the selection problem even more troublesome because there are not a lot of local athletes to choose from in most sports. Ironically this is an indirect result of the selection process itself. The motivation to train and compete with an eye of making it to the top is dampened by a selection process that is anything but transparent.

If making the national team is seen by youngsters and their parents as a political contest as well as an athletic one then most people will simply not engage. They can be perfectly happy participating in their sport and competing for fun and fitness. If an association is truly interested in increasing the number of athletes in training, and increasing the number and caliber of its high performers then an equitable and transparent selection process is needed.