Three problems facing Malaysian sport
Malaysia periodically goes through periods of distress related to sport performance. Usually centering around the national football team due to the game's popularity and the team's lackluster performance in recent years. But except for a few shining examples of excellence this national distress occurs in all sports. Hardly a week goes by without some official, coach, or past sport personality making recommendations, chiding present administrators, or talking about the sports 'potential' for development within the country.
Some associations do a better job of this than others but none of the associations are really tackling the underlying problems in Malaysian sport effectively. This article will examine three areas where major change can take place in this writer's opinion.
Ineffective youth development programs
Malaysia spends a lot of money and expertise on its high performance athletes. Programs help top athletes perform better in training, recover from injury, train the mental side of performance, and aid athletes and coaches in other areas as well. This is money that is well spent. Indeed if the government is going to spend money supporting sport this is where these funds belong.
These top performers have already reached upper levels of performance in their sport or are close to it. We should keep in mind though that high performance athletes emerge from youth development systems and the effectiveness of these systems determine the quality and number of the elite athletes who reach the top. The more comprehensive the youth programs the more robust the high performance athletes will be and the better they will be able to perform. One of the reasons Malaysia has so few top level athletes is that youth development programs are small and simply can't produce large numbers of elite level performers.
Not just any youth program fits the bill however. There are several factors that form the signature of a strong youth sport development program:
- Large enough to train thousands of athletes - Sport development programs must be large enough to produce a good number of youngsters who will move on to the next level of the sport. This means that the number of athletes at the grassroots level has to be large enough to support this.
A good example of how this works is the United States Olympic swimming team. USA Swimming has over 400,000 registered athletes from which only 52 are selected for the Olympic team every four years. The large base of athletes assures USA Swimming of the quality of the extremely small number who reach the top. And no matter what other advantages one may imagine the United States to have in swimming it is the large base of developing athletes that is responsible for its performances at the highest levels.
This build the base idea applies to every sport, not just swimming. Countries that want to compete at a given level must create the developmental structure that will support those aspirations.
- Club based - Youth programs must be consistent and ongoing. To make this possible they have to be based in some kind of club system dedicated to the sport. Most Malaysian sports are set up with state sport associations being subdivisions of the national sport associations so it makes sense that the state associations would spearhead the creation of clubs within their states. However, this must be mediated by policies adopted by the national body to avoid conflicts and political squabbles between local clubs and their state bodies.
Clubs are the lifeblood of sport development. They make the sport 'local' and bind athletes and their families into a local activity with other local athletes. In countries with good developmental structures the state and national sport associations take on more of an administrative role and leave the training and preparation of athletes to the clubs.
For too long schools have been seen as the 'go to' sport development platform. But let's face it, developing sport is not the job of the country's schools. Associations that believe that their next crop of sport stars will come from school based development programs are living in fantasyland.
Malaysian sport associations must find some way to strengthen and empower their sports' club system.
- Commercial - Along with a robust club system there also have to be commercial opportunities within the sport. The days when all youth sport was operated by schools, government bodies, or volunteers are over. Now, for developmental programs to be sustainable they have to allow enterprising groups and individuals to profit from them. This primarily refers to coaches who wish to form clubs to train athletes or teach lessons but it could apply to any number of profit-seeking entities. As long as there is a market commercial opportunities will assure that the development system, or at least part of it, is sustainable.
Underperforming sport associations
There is only so much money to go around and sport associations that consistently underperform should not keep receiving allocations from the Ministry of Youth and Sports. But here's the thing: How do you define 'underperforming'? By establishing KPIs that address development issues the Ministry could incentivize the creation of large developmental programs, and by making annual allocations dependant on achieving these developmental KPIs the sport infrastructure in Malaysia would grow and improve.
Currently, and unofficially, it seems that performance is tied solely to results in national or international competitions. This has no direct effect at the developmental level. The Ministry must establish some way to measure developmental progress in line with proper long-term athlete development principles.
Performance of the various sport associations is closely tied to governance and the way each association sees its role in national development. This brings us to the third and the most pressing issue in Malaysian sport development -- governance.
In an analysis of the Malaysian sport system done after the 2012 Olympic Games several researchers found areas where Malaysia was following recommended guidelines for creating an elite sport system and areas where further development was needed. Although Malaysian athletes were performing well at the elite level and government provision for sport was good the weakness in the system was found to be the lack of development in the sport associations themselves.
These weaknesses are quoted directly from the research abstract:
- There is a lack of strategic planning in national sport associations,
- Very few sports have a holistic competition structure and most sports have no club structure,
- Virtually no sport association keeps membership records, and
- The financial policies and procedures of all sport associations need substantial development.
It's clear from this analysis that the sport associations are the key to further development of sport. Creation of a club system, national athlete registration, and other structural modifications in areas related to competition and governance are needed for sport to grow and improve.
Bill Price (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Chief Information Officer for USSA Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.