Creating a true sport development system in Malaysia

The recent SEA Games is being touted in the press as a major success by the government being not only able to put on a great show but also for being able to produce a winning team for Malaysia. No one can argue that the 2017 Kuala Lumpur SEA Games were a success in both spectacle and performance. The government, through the auspices of the organizing committee, produced one of the most spectacular multi-sport events ever. But when it comes to athlete performances who is really responsible for them? To help answer this question this article will look at a research study from 2012 that addressed why Malaysia seems to have a hard time winning Olympic gold medals.

British researchers presented a paper at the 2012 European Association for Sport Management conference addressing Malaysia's lack of success in winning Olympic gold medals. Their paper summarized a study they did that compared the Malaysian sport structure against the SPLISS pillars (Sport Policy Factors Leading to International Sporting Success). These pillars consist of:

  1. Financial support
  2. Governance, structure, and organization
  3. Sports participation
  4. Talent ID and development
  5. Athletic career and post career support
  6. Training facilities
  7. Coach education and provision
  8. National and international competition
  9. Scientific research and innovation

Their analysis (read the abstract here) noted where Malaysia was performing well and where improvement was needed. The areas singled out needing improvement are quoted from the abstract here:

  • There is a lack of strategic planning in national sport associations (NSA)
  • Very few sports have a holistic competition structure and most sports have no club structure
  • Virtually no NSA keeps membership records
  • The financial policies and procedures of all NSAs need substantial development

Notice that these areas all address tasks related to the sport associations, not the government. In fact, the SPLISS analysis notes that areas where the government is responsible Malaysia receives good marks or is making progress. It is within the associations where improvement is needed if Olympic gold is to be achieved.

Have the associations improved? Have they addressed any of the four points above?

Unfortunately sport association governance in Malaysia is driven by personality rather than policy. With new leadership comes the possibility of upheaval in policy, procedure, and direction of various initiatives. It's hard to establish direction or to accomplish any long-term goals if new leadership can simply change them when they take office. This doesn't mean that new ideas are bad but the cult of personality that fuels drastic changes in policy direction isn't good either.

Personality driven leadership is only part of the problem though. The most significant issue is that even with good ideas NSA leadership only seems to deal with the elite levels of their sport. There seems to be little understanding of what sport development means, or what a sports development system actually does.

The system is what produces elite level athletes and while there are a few athletes who can rise to the top of the performance heap without systemic support they are the exception rather than the rule.

In Malaysia whenever one uses the term 'system' we think government. The system referred to here though isn't the government, although the government is certainly part of it. The system is an overarching collection of support, opportunities, training, education, and competition that all combine to produce elite level athletes. It is decentralized, thus cannot be controlled by any single entity.

Decentralization is why developing a sport club system is critical to the deep development of any sport. A system of clubs can build the foundation of athletes in the sport, create the holistic competition structures referred to above, register and track athletes performance from the very beginning of their training life, and, in short, help create a youth sport culture.

A club system would also create a need for trained local coaches. The reason foreigners are brought in in the first place is the perception that local coaches can't perform at the elite level. A good club system is the only way to create a local supply of trained and experienced coaches. A club system would create coaching 'jobs' for local coaches.

Right now youth sport is simply not a 'thing' in Malaysia. That might be because Malaysian culture simply won't support it. If so, there's not too much you can do about it. It's more likely though that no association has really tried to create a youth sport structure.

The Malaysian sport system is only half formed. It's working well at the elite level but is practically non-existent at the novice or beginning level. Without a club structure, comprehensive competitive opportunities, athlete registration and data tracking, and long-term strategic planning there can't be a robust sport development system. And no matter how well the elite level of the Malaysian system is they will always be working with athletes who will never reach their full potential simply because they have a limited developmental foundation.

Right now Malaysia is focusing too much on the individuals involved in national level sport and not enough on the system needed to keep providing these elite level athletes. No one seems to have the answer to the question about "Where is the next Lee Chong Wei or Nicole David?" By developing a youth sport 'system' we won't have ask this question anymore.