SA Sport there is a future
However there is a need to look deeper into these and other aspects of sports preparation:
The quota system is clearly the most emotive issue and it is ironic that most articles criticising it, also at some point claim that there is no need for the quota system as there are ‘an abundance of talent coming waiting in the wings to come through’. It is disappointing that these commentators do not recognise that it has take the introduction of the quota system to initiate and create these opportunities and identify the future talent. Furthermore the quota system needs to be continued for probably another 3 seasons before it will start to have passed its point of maximum gain.
Given that in most sports this is restricted to local competition there is little disadvantage. All teams in a competition are equally ‘handicapped’ (if one chooses to look at it that way), and this small ‘inconvenience’ is surely acceptable as a say a league of 12 teams can easily produce a pool of 40, 50 or more experienced players, and countless more ‘wannabe’s’ in a single season. We have even had opportunities to ‘blood’ players in international competitions where the outcomes have had no effect on the outcome of a series or impact on a future Championship. This has been standard practice in most countries for years. Most club and even international teams, at some time have selected players who are not necessarily ready for top competition on the ‘swim or sink’ principle in order to provide experience. Previously this has been acceptable, but strangely done under a ‘colour-correction’ ticket it causes ire, in a country struggling to get back to normality.
Changes to provide representative teams are not only required, but inevitable. They can take 3 to 5 years or take generations. The fact that, despite attempts by some sports since the later 1980’s, we are still debating the issue 10 years after acceptance back into the large ocean of International competition should convince us that this will not happen quickly without assistance.
The benefit of the quota system is not simply to the player that is perhaps given that initial advantage, but also to inspire others to try. This principle is not exclusive to South Africa and the same concept can be applied to other aspects of life such as affirmative action in business. A classic example of the deep-rooted benefit of this strategy is the breaking of the “impossible “ 4- minute mile by Roger Bannister in 1954. Despite many attempts this had defeated many, yet once it had been achieved the next few months saw many others repeat this feat. It became the achievable goal. So too does both the quota system and affirmative action. Of course Bannister achieved this on ‘merit’, but the role model principle of this strategy is clear.
Attempts to compare the South Africa situation with other countries is simply not justified. Now other country has the same point of departure in addressing the ‘representation’ in our teams.
The complicating factor in the case of South Africa is that we have spend effectively 25 years of sporting isolation from our departure from the Olympics in 1967 to May 1992. Assuming a top-flight sports life span of around 8 years, this is effectively about 3 or 4 generations of ‘sporting idols’. During this time ‘well chosen’ competition and rebel tours allowed us to be convinced of our “world champion” status in virtually every sport, or alternatively our sport turned internally to create championship and winning status. It is not surprising then that our media and public have become used to a winning lifestyle. It was easy to be big fish in the small pool of isolation.
Added to this is the fact that the worldwide role of sport has evolved over this 30 plus year period. From being a predominately amateur and leisure activity, sport has become big business with even greater import in a country’s ‘political’ standing. While Hitler may have used the 1936 Olympics for politics, there has been a far greater proliferation of such tactics in the intervening years of South Africa’s isolation. This has resulted in massive forward strides in the research, preparation, financial support and competition levels of sport throughout the world, at a time when South Africa was effectively left to evolve under its own volition.
Why then were we able to re-emerge with ‘World Champion status’ through a string of victories such Willie Mtolo’s win in the New York marathon, and Rugby and Soccer championships. In reality South Africa was breaking politically ‘impossible’ 4-minute mile barriers on a daily basis in the early 1990’s and this culminated in the 27 April elections of 1994. The world could have thrown any challenge to South Africa in those days and we would have taken it on, sneered at it and dismissed it as a virtual non-event. Very little could stop the tide of emotion, which was frequently assisted by the advantage of home ground and local support.
So why are we apparently failing to perform on the playing fields? What has caused this tremendous fall from greatness?
There are many reasons, and there can be no-doubt that the very controversy on a political front will disturb the preparation balance, but there are other reasons, which need to be addressed.
Basic business, goal setting and hence also sport principles need to be applied. Expectations of winning with every outing are unrealistic and provide detrimental pressure to players, managers and coaches, and counter the very principles of long-term goal setting. To expect any team or player to maintain form and ‘pinnacle’ performance is unrealistic and counters the very essence of physical preparation.
The media initiation of pressure to change coaches whenever players fail to walk off a pitch with victory is probably one of the most destabilizing influences on a team. Obviously there other circumstances to be taken into account, but how for instance can one justify the pressure put on say Nick Mallet. Here we had a coach who had just set a “world record’ 17 test wins. No team had ever managed to do that previously, but he dared to be part of a losing combination for the 18th test, then the 19th and by then certain media were having phone in and write in ‘polls’ from the general public to determine mallets professional career. It would be naive to think that this would not have an impact on player, coach and even the sport as a whole as they prepared for the 20th or any subsequent test. What happened to the pilot of our record-breaking team? Had he woken up the day after the record having lost all the skills and acumen that he had used to guide the team to 17 victories? When Jacques Freitag cleared a new SA record at the ABSA Track and Field Championships we celebrate the achievement and the coaching. If he then tries for a higher clearance and fails should we condemn the coach to a life in exile?
Even the relative media hermit, Graham Forde, felt the pressure. After only 2 defeats against a charged-up Australian side playing at home, local radio stations were debating and ‘polling’ on Forde’s future.
The various South African sports federations have a responsibility to set short medium and long term goals, the media need to embrace these goals and recognise the physical and psychological principles of such goal setting. The public are rarely fully aware of all the limitations and influencing factors that occur in sport, but the joint partnership of the sport and media need to create realistic public expectations. This would compliment the basic training principles.
Together with the move to professional sport, isolation initiated a major symptom of our current form: The belief that it is possible to compete week in week out. This is exacerbated by South Africa’s idealistic climate. At least in many other countries winter enforces a restriction or break from the damaging effects of competition or heavy training. South Africa sport, from the weekend warrior in cycling, running to the rugby soccer and cricket players at top level, are expected, and even pressurised by peers or media, to perform on a weekly basis. The South African focus has become one of how much training and competition we can squeeze into a period of time. We have lost the plot.
The reason we train is to incur micro-damage to the very muscles we use in competition. It is this ‘muscle damage’ that initiates the increase in strength or ability of our muscles, BUT only if sufficient recovery and nutrition is provided between bouts of training (or competition). If insufficient recovery (nutrients and or time) is allowed between training or competition, then additional damage is inflicted on top of already damaged muscles and clearly performance of that muscle will deteriorate. To the uninformed eye, the resulting performance may even seem to indicate that the player is unfit. Public and media pressure may then ensue to undertake even greater training, when infact the real solution is reduced or alternative training and a greater focus on recovery.
Our failure in this aspect can be clearly seen by the fact that many rugby players have undertaken virtually 2 or more continuous seasons of top flight games with only 3 weeks and injury periods (a typical indication of fatigue) as time off. Similarly our cricketers have been ‘on the road’ for virtually 9 months. Ask any business traveller about the stress of being away from home base for 1 week at a time, then consider the additional psychological stress of our travelling heroes who are away for months at a time and we expect to perform at peak condition on a weekly or even more frequent occasion. Schedules such as these increase the risk of failure not success.
It is not the players or coaches that set these schedules, but administrators and a demanding public. He motivation is often sponsorship or gate money. If we want to succeed it is time we adopted a more conservative and business-like approach. Business doesn’t expect success overnight from a new MD, why do we expect coaches to provide the goods from the outset. Business expects setbacks and failures on the way to success, why can’t we accept that in sport? Business sets 1, 2 and 5-year plan. Olympic athletes (in other countries), take periods of rest, plan year on year, but focus to the 4-year goal, why can’t we do this with South African (and even our own personal) sport?
Rugby for instance could look at a system that restricts players to games at various levels with a promotion / relegation system to bring on new talent and drop out of form players. Players in Super 12, may do say Tri Nations / Springbok representation, but not Currie cup, except as a means of injury rehabilitation. Currie Cup becomes the Springbok talent identification arena, and players have a limit on the number of games they play tied into their contracts. Yes it needs refinement, but the principle of ensuring adequate rest and focused training will yield better performances, bigger bonuses and a more satisfied public.
If South Africa wants to regain our status as a great sports nation, we need to unite, (as we did in 1994) behind our sport set and work to realistic goals in a realistic and scientific fashion, with realistic expectations. Australia invested intelligently in its sports future some 15 years ago, and has reaped the benefit in the past 5 years, Clive Woodward took charge of the English rugby side in the 1990’s, and there are many other examples. South Africa cannot expect to defy the basic laws of investment and return, and sooner we recognise and adopt these principles the sooner we can take this country back to its rightful place. We start by working together, assisting to move the pendulum of change, and being united in our goal, not by arguing over or blaming inevitable and needed changes.
By Norrie Williamson