As one of the most populous provinces in South Africa it would not be unreasonable to expect Kwazulu Natal to have a substantial representation amongst the national athletics teams. However, despite synthetic and grass track facilities, large numbers of licensed athletes and over 100 registered clubs, both altitude and sea-level opportunities and a fixture list offering over 100 road running events the number of national standard athletes is minimal.
Over the past eighteen months or so the tendency seems to have been to adopt a shot gun approach, by sending large squads to national championships and events. This focus on quantity not quality has resulted in a drop in the times required to make selection. While this can be a motivation to some athletes one drawback is that large teams are costly and in an attempt to make this financially viable the athletes pre-event travel and accommodation packages were compromised.
This became self defeating as squads of 40 and 60 athletes were required to travel overnight on buses to East London, Bloemfontein and Stellenbosch, and then expected to perform at National Championship level with minimal recovery: Not surprisingly many athletes were unable to match the standard of performance they reached during their selection process.
Even worse this approach of ‘throwing numbers’ at the championships often resulted in the team being split between those athletes choosing, (and being able to afford) to fly or drive using their own resources, from those who had no option but to take the cheapest, but more tiring option. Such differentiation does nothing for team spirit or morale.
This week’s announcement of the KZN team to the Nedbank SA Marathon Championships in PE on 10 February has the potential to set the pendulum of change on a return swing, which if properly controlled will rest at the mid-swing level of a rational and accountable selection process delivering quality and motivational team numbers.
Although it would have been desirable to have the team announcement at least three months prior to a marathon championships, some tolerance should be allowed on this particular occasion as a new selection committee has only just been assembled under the convenorship of Mike Bennett.
Although without a formal coaching background, Mike has been in the sport for many years and provides the PA and comments at many coastal KZN events. Similarly others on the new selection committee will be readily recognized at local events.
This is an important base for selection as they have a weekly view of who is doing what at the sharp end of the local racing scene. Armed with this knowledge, and through communication with club captains and athletes’ coaches, the potential exists to recognize the differentiating signs of emerging talent, and the downfalls of over-racing. A selection committee adopting such as approach could be the catalyst for changing fortunes in KZN road running.
The correct signals are already in place. A series of qualifying times have been identified for each of the championships, and although these will no doubt attract debate amongst athletes, the principle is a sound one that deserves support, providing these are regularly reviewed not only on the basis of local results, but also the bigger picture.
It is true that we have few true ‘stars’ in national and international terms, but our numbers allow us to place or be competitive in teams. Teams are motivational by their nature, and if used as a tool to harness the talent of both the top in the province with the improving newcomers, then they can improve the overall individual standards. For this and similar reasons there will be occasions when times need to be relaxed to gain the greater combined potential. It is to be hoped this would be given particular attention when a championship is hosted by KZNA, and additional costs are minimal.
This is best expressed by example: Although the women’s selection standard identified by the new committee is 3 hours, there are only eleven South African athletes who managed to get under that time during 2005. Clearly therefore this standard will not be used by all 17 provinces as a basis for selection, but it does open a window of opportunity for KZN when we find that there are three local athletes amongst that eleven: Tanith Maxwell (2:40), Suzette Botha (2:48), and Gwen van Lingen (2:53). Assuming that all three had matched this in the period of selection, then it would clearly be worth taking a fourth athlete in order to score in a team prize as few other provinces would be able to put such a foundation together in a team competition. The selection of say Debbie de Koning who did a 3:10 in 2005, would still deliver a combined time that would virtually guarantee a podium place.
With the correct incentive and recognition this surely would have been motivation for all four ladies, and the fourth selection in particular, to improve for future. By contrast when only selecting two or three in a category, and therefore eliminating the chance of honour through teams.
Realistically, and unfortunately, as things stand there is little reason, other than personal pride and provincial honour, to motivate a second or third string runner to commit to the SA Championships. Indeed it could be said that there is even greater incentive for them to withdraw from the championships in favour of competing in another marathon on a nearby date where, because the top competition is not present, they are able to pick up a podium prize.
Innovative selection and use of the rules could also have impacted in the example above, as both Grace de Oliveira and Judy Shadwell had 2005 times that would have met the newly stated KZN selection standards, and although competing as individuals in the 40-49 age group, with the correct entry format they could have counted towards the senior team: Of course that move would need to be balanced by the potential loss of gold in the 40+ team.
Another motivating factor for athletes would be the establishment of year-round distance specific squads that form the basis of selection. This has long been missed from the provincial structure, and needs to exist in action as much as in name. Squad sessions, pre-competition preparation and education are keys to motivating athletes, improved times and provides a process leading to less contentious final selection.
Squad system, and announcing teams 10-15 weeks prior to championships, also allows athletes to plan and structure their year. Hopefully with this new dispensation we have seen the end of last minute notifications and the poor communication that has characterized many past teams.
Smaller teams should also result in better travel, accommodation and pre-race support, with athletes being flown to venues with sufficient recovery, adequate subsistence and equipment.
Team management is also a contributing factor, where the emphasis is focused on covering the key competition and athlete needs. These include: Gender, language and communication for all cultures represented by the team, thorough knowledge of the rules, the fundamentals of coaching and athlete preparation, and sound logistic and administrative qualities. Typically, for small teams, this could be covered by about three managers.
The new committee has already re-initiated the process started a few years back, where they will be holding Managers Clinics to determine a pool of potential managers to be sent with the teams. Letters in this respect have been circulated to clubs and any members who feel they can contribute in this respect should make application through their club to the provincial office. This can only be welcomed as another step in the right direction.
It is the mix of standards, innovation, and vision of the local and bigger picture, sound management, and communication with the athletes that will determine whether this new selection policy reaches its true potential.
Of course these are not the only aspects that impact on the road running standards in KZN, however, one thing is sure, as we move into 2007 it is a welcome opportunity that exists: Clubs and athletes need to give the new selection committee the chance to deliver.
The KZN team to the Nedbank SA Marathon Championships comprises:
Senior: Moses Lepheana, Sandile Makhanya, Mncedisi Mkhize, Vusi Sokehla and Edwin Manyokole listed as non traveling Reserve.
40-49 Peter Sehloho, Thomas Mthali, Eloi de Oliveira, Herbert Mazongolo, Simphiwe Ntentesa as non traveling reserve.
50-59 Nicolas Dlamini, Sam Mfela
60+ Moray Calder
Senior: Tanith Maxwell
40-49 Grace de Oliveira, Rentia Dennison, Julia Shadwell, Debbie de Koning
50-59 Wendy Fitzmaurice, Judith Geldenhuis
60+ Jenny Allebone.
(Both Sandile Lembethe and Suzette Botha withdrew from the original selection)