What happens after an athlete's initial introduction to sport?
So much of what I have written in these articles has focused on how important the grassroots level of sport development is and why massive efforts should be exerted in Malaysia to develop it. But what happens after that? What's the next step after an athlete has gone through the initial introduction to a sport?
Let's pretend that Malaysia already has a thriving grassroots level sports program, that millions of young Malaysians are involved in some kind of sport action every week, that parents support their children in sport, that well trained coaches are plentiful, and that sport associations are effective and economically stable.
A whopping 30% of Malaysians are under 15 years of age. That means over 9 million kids could be prime youth sport participants, nine million kids that could be involved in sport practices and competitions if our grassroots scenario were true. And we're pretending it is, so, now what? What do those 9 million kids need to thrive in a youth sport environment?
First, they need opportunities. They need opportunities to practice, play, and compete. They need something beyond the several weeks each year that schools are able to devote to targeted sport competitions. They need a real sport season with numerous competitions that are open to all and leading to some kind of championship competition.
They need coaches who can provide continuity between school sport and community sport. These coaches need to be trained and able to work within both an educational sport framework as well as a commercial, stand-alone sport framework. This means sport clubs that operate as businesses; who are part of the sport association but not run by the association.
How does this work? The first step is to make sport training clubs a viable commercial idea. There are already some examples of this in Malaysia. Gymnastic training, for example, is offered by clubs on a commercial basis. Currently they may attract only those families able to pay the fees but in future Malaysian sport aficionados need to find a way to attract all who wish to participate into these clubs. Sponsorship or scholarship of athletes is one way to do this but there are others. Some of this is already happening, the key is to find ways to make it happen on a much larger scale.
We know that at the earliest stages of sport participation the coach has a limited time to get an athlete hooked on the activity; that each practice should be designed to leave the athlete wanting more and looking forward to the next one.
As time passes though the responsibility shifts from being solely the coach's to being a shared responsibility with the athlete. The good news is that with knowledgeable coaches at the introductory level the athlete will be able to develop a passion for the activity. They will become students of the game and their passion for the sport will become internalized rather than directed from an external source.
Does this mean that every young athlete who has a knowledgeable coach will develop into an elite performer? If only that were so! But what it does mean is that those athletes with the desire to excel, to learn the sport, and a passion to compete will be ready to accept the responsibility for their own success once they are old enough to do so.
At that stage the coach's role changes and becomes secondary to the athlete's own motivation. The coach still has a vital role to play but the responsibility for the athlete's participation and success is now shared unlike the earliest stages when it rested mostly, if not wholly, with the coach. So after the initial period of participation is over and as an athlete's time in the sport lengthens he begins taking a more responsible role in his training. And as his knowledge and understanding of the sport deepens the beginning of possible elite status is hatched. But whether this status is reached or not, a young adult emerges with a love for physical activity, a passion for sport, and, hopefully, a willingness to pass it on.