Other Sport

Open letter: To the Minister of Sport and all SA sports leaders

2016-04-28 10:22
Fikile Mbalula (Gallo Images)

Like many South Africans, I’ve been an interested observer of the latest play to drive our sports federations to adopt transformation more seriously. Preventing SA sports from bidding for and hosting international events is certainly an excellent way to get their attention. Minister, when Zapiro suggested to you in a cartoon that a bit of imagination could see “winning” and “transformation” strategies carried off at the same time, I’m not sure this is what he envisaged! 

Nevertheless, it’s done, and let me be clear upfront, transformation is absolutely critical to sporting performance. It’s also clear that this has not happened to the degree that it could, and should, have. This is true quite aside from any social, political and economic factors that any reasonable person would recognise as having value. 

Those are crucial, but my paradigm in writing to all of you today is performance. When I watch Kagiso Rabada take seven wickets in a Test match, or when Bryan Habana equals the Rugby World Cup try-scoring record, I find myself wondering “If he is capable of that, I wonder how many others we might have missed?”

That’s our reality - our sports have, for too long, picked their elite 11 or 15 from an artificially small segment of our population. It wastes a huge portion of our scarce resource of talent, and it’s profound to think that Habana or Rabada might be the “X” on a map that marks the buried treasure. Let’s get digging!  So unlike many, I don’t see transformation and elite performance as mutually exclusive. I hope we all agree on this, and can find a way to stop compartmentalising transformation.  

However, I’m also acutely aware that this transformation issue never seems to go away. It’s a permanent fixture in SA sport, and I wonder whether this latest action will do anything other than incentivise window-dressing as the sports madly scramble to hit numerical targets without actually fixing the root causes? People respond to what they are measured against, after all, Minister, and your intervention may just compel a short-term solution, when really, it’s a long-term, multi-generational problem.

In thinking about that long-term problem, I want to attempt to distill the entire debate into what I hope are two simple but informative truths. I offer them as principles upon which a working solution to this recurring problem might be built.

First, transformation is nothing more than a weighted or “loaded” talent identification and development system.  Therefore, if sports are failing to transform, it’s because Talent ID and its subsequent development are failing.

Given that we’ve never invested in creating professional and elite sports governance or systems, this is hardly surprising. Such sports systems would allow three key changes. First, we would be able to implement a formalised coaching infrastructure. That would in turn allow us to better control and create incentives for player development among the coaches we do have. Third, it would create an identifiable long-term pathway for young players. 

Given that none exist, are you surprised that sporting federations are missing the targets time after time? I’m certainly not, and the root cause is not simply transformation apathy. It’s capacity and competence. It’s the will, and the way, and I hope that you can all see how SRSA, SA Rugby, Cricket South Africa and co could help create both.

Second, talent identification and development can be thought of in the following way: You are reading this on April 28, 2016. In 10 to 12 years, at the 2026 FIFA World Cup, 2027 Rugby World Cup, or the 2028 Olympic Games, we want a team of South Africans that properly represents our nation to lift a trophy or receive gold medals. Do you agree?

If you do, then Talent ID can be distilled into one realisation, and three questions. The realisation is that the 26-year-old athlete who will one day win that trophy for us is 15 years old today. The questions are: Where is that person? What are they doing right now? With whom are they doing it?

You see sports leaders, those three questions drive your entire talent ID and development strategy. Our future stars cannot be ‘ghosts’ who miraculously, accidentally, appear on a rugby or cricket field for the national coach to select one day.

Of the three questions, the most crucial one is “with whom”, because the answer to that question is a person who must not only provide the technical coaching support and mentorship, but must also help to identify the young players we’re so interested in finding, thus answering “where” and “what” at the same time.

So, a key pillar of a transformation strategy should be to develop a pathway that prioritises the long-term development of future athletes, and to fill it with competent, rewarded people. Then you have to incentivise those coaches to develop young athletes, rather than to win from one week to the next. One of the problems we have, certainly in rugby and cricket, is that a current pathway runs through schools, and those coaches care only for winning. From the age of eight or nine, it’s about the scoreboard, and so again, should we be surprised when players fall off and disappear, having shown potential as youngsters?

If we can’t develop a parallel pathway that isn’t preoccupied with short-term victories, then the 15-year-old won’t become a champion, and the coaches whose heads are on the block for performance AND transformation at professional level will be forced into compromise because there are no world-class performers to satisfy both those agendas. But the failure we all see at the end of the pathway, in our professional teams, is actually the result of failures at the start and middle, where we couldn’t get the best potential in contact with the best support during the key formative years.

So that’s where your attention (and investment) should be directed. As sure as you are reading this now, no South African sport can answer those questions with the level of accuracy required. This is a very specific problem, and those cannot be solved with vague answers. That’s called guessing, and guessing is fertile ground for failure in elite sport. 

Our problem is compounded by the fact that we have decided that the dice should be loaded in favour of black players.  Again, no objection from me there, but what you must realise is that if you want to change behavior, it’s not simply about forcing the removal of bias, or worse, racism, among selectors and coaches right down to school level. You also have to get creative about how you entice those young players to start, and then stay in, the sport.

Remember the second of those three questions? You must know what your future stars are doing, now and in the future? There’s a good chance they aren’t even playing the sport, because culture and the influence of their parents (who often didn’t play the sport either) are so crucial to sport commitment. This is why it normally takes generations to change behavior, but we want it fast-tracked. So how might this be done? 

Well, in the same way that you might chose a Mercedes Benz over a BMW (hypothetically) when you buy a car, I’d want to understand how young black South Africans choose their sports. Transformation is not simply about pushing round pegs into square holes. We always talk about how coaches must select black players, but I would encourage you to consider it from the opposite direction - how do players select the sport they want to play?

Something I don’t think anyone has ever really thought about is that marketing and promotional strategies (which are responsible for your car preference, for instance) to make a given sport appear attractive to ‘buyers’ need to be integrated into our transformation strategies. How else are we going to accelerate the self-selection of the best talent to the sports that are historically not aspirational to many? And unless we get the best talent at the start, we won’t produce it at the end - this is elite sport, so you need the very best raw materials to produce a precious finished product.

So in closing, let’s keep working towards an integrated solution. Minister, I know you’re a man who values legacy, and yours could well be to finally steer the transformation discussion in the right direction. However, I just want to emphasise that ‘legacy’ is by nature a long-term word, and it takes a long time to build one. So too, effective transformation is a three-generation project. So I hope you’ll be patient, recognise that we must invest in expertise, pathways and incentives, not at the end of the pathway, but at the beginning.

You must also realise that this will cost money, but given that you’ve spent tens of millions on boxing events and single-night sports awards, perhaps this ban on hosting events can also applied to SRSA, which would free up a lot of money that can be better spent on the principles I’ve tried to introduce above. Then who knows, perhaps in 2026, you’ll be cheering on six Habanas in rugby and five Rabadas in cricket? If not, we’ll speak again, and raise the same set of root causes, in five years.

Yours in sport,

Ross Tucker

Professor Ross Tucker is also a research consultant to World Rugby. He has also advised the SA Sevens, SA Kayaking, SA Triathlon, USA Triathlon and the UK Olympic Committee. In addition he is an ambassador and adviser to Virgin Active as well as Adidas. Further, Professor Tucker has been named one of the ‘100 Most Influential People in Sport’ by the current South African Sport Minister Fikile Mbalula (2013).

Read more on:    ross tucker  |  fikile mbalula


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