Sports Participation and Performance – A Life Long Journey (1 January 2017)

As a coach of elite athletes for the past 25 years, I am truly grateful for the vast variety of experiences that have opened my eyes to a wider perspective of a lifelong enjoyment of sport. Sport has been at the forefront of my life, allowing me to be the student and the coach, the participant, the competitor, as well as the spectator. My journey may be unique as far as the career path I chose from a young age, and I may be somewhat biased in views from the constant all-encompassing exposure. However, despite the majority of my career being influenced by swimming, I consider myself an ambassador of sports in general.

My journey began with exposure on multiple levels to a variety of disciplines, skills, fundamentals, knowledge, and attitudes that established sound foundations with respect to being a well-rounded athlete and person. I may not have been the best athlete in any given sport, but I am confident in my athletic abilities and will thoroughly enjoy the concept of an active life-style for many more years to come. And that is what I will discuss here today: foundations that will provide the impetus for a lifelong involvement in sport – for participation, performance, health and active lives.

As I embark on a new journey within this career, I am privileged to mentor new generations of coaches and educators and share my experiences with them. I was fortunate enough to receive the guidance of many outstanding individuals who showed me the importance to be open minded, as well as being receptive to constructive criticism when it comes to the methods used to train and develop elite athletes. They taught me to question and not just act, they taught me to be prepared, to evaluate, and be willing to adjust my approach as each situation presented itself. How they influenced me most, was the process of being confident in my abilities whilst maintaining humility that there is always something new to learn when it comes to dealing with athletes. Ignorance and apathy are a coach’s worst nightmare. Continuing education is not only theoretical in a formal setting, but a daily occurrence. As a coach, I learn daily from the athletes I work with. As a mentor, I learn from each person I interact with, no matter their level of experience. The opportunity to share knowledge, to collaborate, and communicate with others across the entire athlete development spectrum keeps one grounded in reality with the appreciation that each athlete comes with his/her own unique set of circumstances and influences. It is this bevy of acquired knowledge via sharing that gives impetus for tackling any situation you may encounter.

So where does this journey in sports begin?

Physical literacy is the key component or foundation of an active life. Physical literacy as defined by Margaret White

“the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to maintain physical activity throughout the life course” (Routledge, London 2010).

In short, these are the physical or athletic skills we learn as children plus the capacity for us to be confident in these acquired skills to sustain and practice them throughout our lives. Physical literacy is the foundation of athletic development whether it be as a career athlete, recreational participant or just the ability to be active in our everyday lives. What skills, knowledge, and attitudes to sport we develop in our childhood will be the limiting precursor to how productively active we will be as a youth, as young adults, as adults, and as elderly persons. The understanding of this fundamental component was far from my thought process as an elite coach working with a minority of highly skilled athletes – I refined the skills already inherent in the best. The concept is far more integral in my daily objectives as an administrator responsible for the overall well-being and long term success within a sport federation from Olympic cycle to Olympic cycle. Without a structured approach to ensure that all our potential participants are exposed to the necessary physical skills, knowledge, and attitudes needed for long term healthy lives, we actually limit the capacity of individuals that could eventually develop into world class elite athletes. Without a significant focus on physical literacy at the youngest age, we gamble that many will fall through the cracks and become “what could have been”. Without the nurturing of physical literacy from the grassroots, my options as an elite coach are limited, and potentiality of the skills of the elite I am working with may have a lower ceiling than expected. As an elite coach, I depend on the exposure my athletes had from the start of their journey to what I can refine at the end of their journey. No matter what knowledge I feel I possess as a coach of elite athletes, the knowledge of those who prepare my athletes for their final journey becomes of consequence to my influence. As I explore the concept of physical literacy in my daily objectives, these are some key questions that come to light:

  1. What will our sport look like in ten years and where does that put us based on our current ecosystem?
  2. What opportunities exist in my sport, in my federation to attract young generations to explore it?
  3. Who are the target individuals, are they aware of the opportunities, do they engage in them, and what attracted them to our sport?
  4. What is the skill level and competitive ability of our athletes within the federation to compete at a world level? Why are there gaps?
  5. Who are the educators from the grassroots onward and what is the means to share knowledge and grow the sport for long term sustained growth?
  6. Is there a continual pathway to maintain participants within this sport?
  7. How does our current social environment affect the current perception of the cultural importance sports has in our everyday lives?
  8. How do we change mindsets, and can we?

The concept of a long term approach to athletic development promotes physical activity for all based on developmental progression. No matter where you coach along the developmental pathway, your purpose is integral to provide a seamless pathway forward for all. The concept of sharing knowledge helps us all to understand the importance at each level and provides the backdrop for longevity in sports whether competitively or recreational. This encompasses everything from the grassroots where basic skill sets of movement and coordination are being nurtured to the concept of enjoyment, the building of self-confidence and the ability to be functional in active group settings. These skills are learned over a wide variety of sports without specialization or importance of competitive success. These skill-sets lay the athletic base for movement to allow kids to understand them and then select more specialized pathways as they adopt preferences for particular sports.

Up to that time one chooses a specialization each child should be exposed to multiple sports to continue to expand the learned effect of fundamentals on growing bodies. As the skills refine the focus may narrow where eventually the youth will understand more clearly their sport of preference if a career path is their direction. This foundation provides the ultimate backdrop for athletes to engage in maximizing their potential athletic ceilings. This framework is what governs the success ability of a federation to sustain growth and maximize the potential of elite career athletes that can go on to represent at the highest level internationally. Unfortunately, in today’s world of fast paced, education driven and work place demands, the exposure to rudimentary skills learned in the past by climbing trees, running on uneven ground, playing hide and seek, and just scrimmaging in a park with friends after school puts high demand on planned infrastructure to provide the exposure and opportunities. Sport is a needed evil to sustain healthy populations, but lack of exposure to fundamental skills at the grassroots level limits potential engagement in a long-term active lifestyle.

As my journey continues I hope to help the enjoyment of sport continue through the next generations. My message is simple:

As sport administrators, we must join forces with all stakeholders to ensure these grassroots programs give the active start necessary to promote a life long journey in sports.

As elite coaches, it is key for us to understand the importance of a sustainable athlete pathway and to invest time to participate in helping nurture this for our own sake of developing that next Olympic champion.

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