Some ideas for Malaysia's new sports minister
As a result of the recent election there is an air of expectation in Malaysia's sport world over what changes will occur in the near future. The new government is still organizing itself and as this is being written no minister for sport has yet been appointed so we want to suggest some ideas that the new minister might consider.
According to the New Straits Times, "... it remains to be seen whether former Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin’s initiatives such as the Podium Programme and the National Football Development Programme (NFDP) will be continued under the new ruling party." In this writer's opinion these two programs are bright spots in the Malaysian sport infrastructure and should be retained.
The New Straits Times article implies that since these two programs had their inception under the previous government they might not be continued. These programs are a natural part of any development scheme. The Podium Program deals with elite level athletes. Many countries have similar structures to support their high performers. Likewise, the National Football Development Program is a model that could be implemented by other associations. These are good initiatives. Much more needs to be done but these programs put Malaysia on the right track in sport development. Review and tweak these two gems. Keep what works and modify or discard what doesn't.
Some existing practices should be changed, and new ideas are needed, changes not only to the way things are done but changes to what is done. Here is a list of things the new sports minister can use to reinvigorate or maybe even reinvent Malaysian sports. They are based on many of the articles that have appeared here in the past three years.
Emphasize sport for all - The only way to build up a large enough athlete pool is to start creating a sport for all culture. Currently this is not something that sport associations see as within their purview so the Ministry may have to take a large role in this.
This includes developing a club system within each sport. Some associations already have this on some level but improvement is needed. Clubs are the lifeblood of any sport development scheme and associations need to support their creation and establish standard practices for how they should be run.
The best way to build the sport for all culture is through the long-term athlete development model. This is a comprehensive framework that addresses novice to elite levels of athlete performance. Associations that could implement such a framework would be rewarded with a large and capable base of young athletes, some of whom would eventually reach the high performance level.
Be wary of hiring foreign coaches - Foreign coaches only impact the small group of athletes they actually work with. In most cases associations that hire foreign coaches are spending a lot of money for little result. A better way to spend money on foreign talent is to consider hiring a technical director, someone who understands the various moving parts needed for sport development and the specific sport involved.
A technical director wouldn't do any actual coaching but would instead help design the development infrastructure needed to create a large pool of athletes. This requires a deep knowledge of the sport, the mechanics of sport development, and a unique understanding of how culture, demographics, economics, and social factors can influence the success and growth of a sport. This is an administrative position, not a coaching one. This person would be hired by and work directly for the sport association.
Make sure data drives decisions - This includes membership records, performance data, club and facility directories, and training and certification for coaches and officials. Everything related to a specific sport should be part of an association's data system and decisions should be based on this data.
Identify core sports that Malaysia plays - Malaysia should focus on sports that Malaysians play. There are a number of obscure or thinly developed activities that compete for funds from the Ministry. These should be pared down to a sensible core group of sports that can potentially develop a large pool of athletes. Sports like figure skating, skiing, equestrian events, and sailing have no chance of doing this because they are far too expensive for the average Malaysian to get involved in. There is nothing wrong with these activities but the Ministry shouldn't be spending money on them.
Establish KPIs for sport associations - Many sport officials make a big point about establishing key performance indicators (KPIs) for athletes but KPIs are also necessary for the associations themselves. This is an initiative that the Ministry could use to determine association funding.
Some ideas as to where to start:
- Each sport association creates a strategic plan for development of its sport. Not some vague idea about getting the sport 'into the schools' or some other vaporous notion, but real plans outlining things that can be quantified and measured. Plans about what the association is going to do to promote and grow their sport within Malaysia.
- Embrace the use of technology. KPIs can require sport associations to collect specific kinds of data so that they have information to make informed choices about various development initiatives. Who are their athletes? Coaches? Where do they live? Clubs? This is a big task.
- Establish comprehensive and holistic annual competition schedules. These competitions must be frequent, held all over the country, and appropriate to the various levels of athletes.
- The athlete base must be developed to a minimum level as determined by the Ministry and the association. This means keeping membership records and enough data about each member to determine where the sport is strong and where it needs extra effort. These records apply to both athlete and non-athlete members. For example, the Ministry might require a certain association to have at least 2000 athletes involved in consistent training to qualify for public funding. This would motivate several important developmental tasks such as implementing a data system to track these athletes, coaches training, helping to kick-start clubs in various areas, and force the association to focus on grassroots programs rather than just talk about them. Another example would be to require associations to train a certain number of officials each year in various parts of the country. This would help the newly busy competition schedule to be adequately staffed.
- Require standard accounting and governance practices in all associations. The Ministry should design a general template for association governance to include its governance structure and financial practices. Strictly speaking sport associations are not stand-alone organizations. Their sport might make them unique but they are not really different from other sport associations in any distinctive way.
Finally, and most importantly:
Discourage personality driven leadership in associations - This is a tough one because it is part of many Malaysian institutions, not just sports. The Ministry could influence this quite a bit if they really want to, ousting previous government officials and installing their own. My hope is that they won't and will instead focus on getting people into leadership positions who know their sport and can get the job done.
The reason for having close political operatives of the government as heads or high officials in the associations is easy to figure out but this personality over policy leadership model hurts more than it helps. The tuan mentality has been a disaster for sports in Malaysia and no matter how difficult it may be it is time to break away from this style of leadership.
That's the list. Others could probably offer a few more items but for now just making changes in the areas above would be a good beginning for a revitalization in Malaysian sport.
Bill Price (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Chief Information Officer at USSA Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.