There’s a ball in the air – but who will catch it?
There’s a ball in the air and the spectators are watching to see who is going to catch it.
The height would prompt the legendary Scottish rugby commentator, Bill Mclaren, to say there’s snow on it and its awkward spin epitomizes the difficulty in finding answers for the apparent poor showing by South African athletes at the World Championships in Japan over the past week.

It’s the media who kicked the ball into the air, and they are not without responsibility in chasing and catching it, but as high hurdler Shaun Bownes stated, “We are professional athletes, It’s the coaches’ and the athletes’ responsibility to be at their best for the major championships.” I subscribe to this view.

The performances over the first five days deserve more consideration than a cursory dismissal of failure.

Clearly no-one goes to global championship with anything but a desire to do their best, but the statistics, and post event discussion in the mixed zone, conclude that some performances are based more on aspiration and fate, than analysis, learning, preparation and implementation; four cornerstones of elite performance.

Although the first five days saw 286 seasons bests, 167 personal bests, 1 Commonwealth Record, 10 World leading times, 1 junior World Record, 2 Area Records, and a massive 43 National records set by 1500 competitors, not one came from a South African. Of 17 athletes only four made it past their first round, one withdrew injured, and three failed to finish.

Although with two marathon finishers, it was one step better than Helsinki in 2005, their times of 2:26:00, and 2:40:22 were well below expectations even after adjustment for the oppressive heat and humidity: this shows a lack of foresight.

Inverting the stats, 81% of the world’s elite fail to match their season’s best, but it’s not unreasonable to expect performances to be within a 2% variance of the time or distance used for selection. Using this guideline eight South Africans failed to make the grade, with an average degradation of 6% from their season’s best, and 7% from their Personal Best. It is little wonder that media and public have questioned the results, where on pure statistical evidence between three and four season bests and two to three Personal best performances were reasonable expectations.

There are clear definitions, responsibilities and accountability of role players in sport as in business.

As Bownes states they are professionals, which carries more accountability than being paid; poor performance in your workplace doesn’t go without analysis, nor should that of an elite athlete.

Some people believe it’s the federation who have knocked the ball on, but the federation’s prime role is the provision of the competitive opportunities, the logistic arrangements, equipment, clothing and support structures to facilitate the often idiosyncratic preparation by individual athlete’s and their private support teams.

Where there is failure or improvement to be had in these aspects the federation, as with all role players, need accept accountability and make the necessary adjustments.

This is exemplified by ASA’s foresight this year in offering athletes the opportunity of a month long base camp in Europe, and ten day pre championship experience in Beijing. The recovery and acclimatization benefits may be short term but long term impact in preparation for 2008 relies as much on the analysis of information gleaned as it does on immediate increase in knowledge base.

There is an accountability that comes with accepting the opportunity and honour of representing one’s country: It is to be optimally prepared to perform at the peak of your current ability; to at least match the selection performance.

The root of this is grounded in an athlete developing desire and clear-cut goals; without it they are rudder-less boats blown by the breeze of whims.
Both factions appear to exist in the South African team, why else would an athlete contemplate competing in a 10km ladies race, a cross country championship, a second marathon or any similar competition, within two weeks of returning from a less than satisfactory World Championship experience?

Others, such as Geraldine Pillay have vision, direction and focus. Pillay may not have been at her peak, but one has to respect that this has been a year of change that has taken her to Jamaica to train with coach Stephen Francis and his athletes including Asafa Powell. “If you want to be the best you go to the best”, says Pillay, who initially experienced challenges in adapting to the higher levels of training, which may have contributed to her result.
Or consider the young in years, but mature in approach, Robert Oosthuizen who calmly handled the run-up difficulties in the javelin that had more experienced and able athletes struggling for distance.

There will always be experiences that, no matter how many warnings, can only be learnt first hand, such as the pressure or over confidence that put pay to Mulaudzi’s 800m progression in 2005, and sidelined LJ van Zyl in this years 400m hurdles. The measure of the athlete is their ability to come back. Athletes with direction recognize these errors as valuable rungs on the ladder reaching their goals.

Coaching is more than physical preparation, it is the holistic analysis and programming that crosses every aspect that impacts on the performance: Mental, Nutritional, Logistic and Physical.

It is the ability to analyze, learn, prepare, and implement that brings long term results. “Too many athletes expect quick results, I know this is long term, my goals are 2012” continues Pillay, who can quote times and dates for the steps towards her particular goal.

As someone privileged to coach an athlete at the games, I have no right to lay-claim to be her coach with out contributing to the outcome, nor can I share in success without accepting accountability for poor performances.

The responsibility for the performance finally transfers to the athlete when the gun is fired, but by then it’s playing out predictable roles from a pallet of prepared options.
So it will be with KZN’s Tanith Maxwell in tomorrow’s marathon. We believe the controllable has been controlled: physically her times put her in 2:35 to 2:36 shape, nutritionally she brought the necessary food to maintain her tried and tested diet, and the route has been inspected, and her choice of linebreak compression clothing for the flight across was based on best scientific practice. Even the uncontrollable nature of the weather has been analyzed, to evolve a range of game plans “We knew this was never going to be about improving times, its about improving my performance” said the Maxwell. “If it’s like the men’s race, it can add 15 minutes to the time, I have a range of plans; race day determines which one to use.” A repeat of the 32 degree heat and 80% humidity would see a 2:29 winning time equate a 2:20 marathon, requiring Maxwell to run around 2:50 to improve her PB of 2:40, and anything below that takes her closer to her current 2:36 goal.
“This is my most important step so far towards my ambitions of competing in the Olympics; there is so much to take away: getting used to a world competition, the pressure of a ten day championship, being in a country with vastly different language and culture. The Beijing camp was a huge bonus, that experience reduces the pressures and distractions next year (in Beijing), if I get selected”
The proof of the preparation is in the performance, and the way Maxwell rolls it out tomorrow. The flag has been nailed to the pole, failure to match expectations make the athlete and coach accountable – how can it be otherwise?

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