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As we lift our standards in sport...

Akshai Mansingh

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

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The Jamaica Observer 's refreshing editorial on 'Sports academies the answer to academics vs sports debate' summarised the laudable effort of Peter Gould in launching the Mount Pleasant Football Academy. This is the first dedicated sport academy where high school children can hone their football skills while receiving education in a presumably well-monitored and apportioned manner. The philanthropic nature of this venture by Gould matches its contemporary style of providing scientific and professional support to the young footballers in many parts of the world.

Perhaps one of the major causes for the drop in world standings in our main sports is the failure to realise that sports is no longer just based on natural talent, but rather a blend of talent and the best that sports science and coaching have to offer. Our preoccupation with high school rivalries has made us lose sight of how the world of sport has changed to a higher level, and why we are not featuring at the top in all but a few sports.

The cornerstone of producing high-performing athletes is their exposure to competent contemporary coaches and technology. That other countries have embraced this and moved rapidly up world rankings is testimony to development of athletes, coaches and resources from the base up.

Academies in football, cricket, netball and athletics, the main sports of the region, as well as in just about any other major world sport, start with talent search from the first decade of life, enhancement in the early second decade (teens), enforcement and strengthening in the latter teens and professionalisation when they reach their 20s. This is accompanied by proper educational support throughout to ensure that the athlete is not only able to execute on the field or track but can continue to enhance the process off the field, by resorting to technological and educational support in their development.

Contrast that to what seems to be happening at an alarming extent in Jamaica, where high schools compete to recruit the best talent from weaker feeder schools, but exploit the athlete for selfish purposes. Often these athletes are left overworked, injured and illiterate by the time they leave school, unable to realise their athletic or academic potential. This is the result of poor support systems, which often starts with coaches not versed in the latest in athletic development (both physical or mental), lack of supplemental educational support, medical support by non-specialists, comprising either loyal alumni or free volunteers, and no sport science aid. This leads to substandard athletes who may excel at a local level but are far behind what is happening in the rest of the world.

Most coaches have basic training. Some may be exposed to rudimentary scientific techniques but have no access to more sophisticated equipment. Hence the biomechanical analysis of an athlete's style, fundamental to improving the finer points of their game is lost. Lack of equipment to measure most parameters of fitness: aerobic and anaerobic endurance, flexibility, agility, power, and strength prevent athletes from improving individual deficiencies. Rather, they are subjected to a one fitness programme fits all.

The lack of specialist sports physicians and sports physiotherapists, coupled with the reluctance of most schools to venture beyond their unqualified volunteers, leads to injuries in the early years of high school. The first injury is the single worst prognostic factor for future major injuries, meaning that if one can prevent the onset of an injury as long as possible, the more likely that the athlete will not get a major injury. Minor hamstring strains in the early years, for example, often due to muscle tightness during the growth spurt, leads to recurrent hamstring injuries when these athletes reach the hands of more senior coaches, who often grapple for years just to get these athletes fit and injury-free.

Basic components of sports medicine and sports science, such as nutrition, psychology, physiological enhancement, video analysis, etc, commonly available to high school athletes in most sporting countries, is rarely available to even our elite high school athletes.

It is imperative for the nation to provide access to better coaches and sports scientists. The tertiary level institutions have tried to step up. The University of the West Indies (UWI) realised the importance of sports to the region by opening its first new faculty in over 40 years; the Faculty of Sport. As of September this year coaches wishing to pursue a full degree in coaching and acquire their professional levels of coaching certificates have enrolled in the new BSc Sports Coaching programme. Coupled with the new BSc Sports Kinetics programmes, the aim is to expose coaches and sports scientists to the modern methods of coaching and science, with a foundation that the UWI is known for. Postgraduate programmes up to PhD level allow for more in-depth studies in these and other aspects of sports.

Along with other tertiary institutions, the UWI is committed to providing a cadre of highly trained, modern sport professionals who can lift the level of sports in the region. It is up to the schools to hire such specialists with the understanding that sport is a vocational avenue as much as any other discipline. In the meantime, we applaud initiatives like the Mount Pleasant Football Academy and are committed to providing them with local specialists as we collectively lift our standards in sport.

Dr Akshai Mansingh is dean of the Faculty of Sport, The University of the West Indies, Mona. Send comments to the Observer or zfos@uwimona.edu.jm.

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