Does Malaysia need the Podium Program? Yes, but it also needs something more
Although the so-called final test of the Podium Program is currently underway in Jakarta it seems that it has already been unofficially evaluated and found wanting. Sieh Kok Chi, former secretary general of the Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM), recently claimed that there has been no positive outcome from the program and he questions the need for foreign involvement with administrative functions. Coaches maybe, but not administrators. Youth and Sports Minister, Syed Saddiq, is reportedly considering a revamp after the Asian Games. Is the Podium Program flawed? If it's not then where is the real source of Malaysia's declining sport performance?
The Podium Program uses both coaches and administrators from outside Malaysia. Using foreign coaching talent is quite common but this practice often does not work out as hoped.
Hiring a foreign coach is not always a good idea. Removing someone from their support system, no matter how good they are at their jobs, creates a situation where they are less effective. Culture plays a key role in the success of coaches as well as athletes. A successful coach thrives in the system they work in partly, indeed if not mostly, because of the system. Move them to a different culture and suddenly they are not as effective.
Foreign administrators are subject to the same problem but they also have the additional burden of administering a program where the details or job scope are often ineffective in accomplishing the goals of the program. Foreign administrators are also shackled by protocols and bureaucracy that prevent different ideas from being considered.
Is it the personnel or is it the system itself?
By now Malaysia should have enough experience with hiring foreign talent to know that it is not the solution to its sport performance woes, but it's also not the source of the problem either. It's the system that needs evaluation.
Malaysia needs new ideas. Einstein's quote about insanity being defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting to get different results applies here. Malaysia seems to do the same things all the time and expects that this time it will be different.
What kinds of things are done over and over? Here's a list:
- Talent searches - The fanfare about talent searches usually occurs after sport association elections. New officers like to make it appear that they are hitting the ground running and announcing new talent identification schemes is a great way to get some attention in the media.
- Getting programs into schools - How many times have we heard that the secret to success is to get a particular sport into schools? While physical education and some sport activities are part of the curriculum it's completely unreasonable to think that school based sport will be able to develop any sport to the degree needed for national improvement. Schools have other things to do.
- Getting support from the ministry or waiting for some kind of sponsorship - This is a sneaky way of saying that it's not really the associations fault if, in the face of no ministry or sponsor support, the sport withers and dies. The ministry needs to set key performance indicators (KPIs) for sport associations directed at development rather than performance. It's time to couple funding with developmental KPIs.
This idea has been around for a long time. It was popular back in the 1980s when I coached in Sabah. It didn't work then and it hasn't worked for at least the last 38 years. We should stop talking about it. When sport administrators say that their plan for development is to get their sport into schools what they really mean is that they have no idea how to improve their sport but getting it into schools sounds good.
These strategies don't work. The solution lies in new ideas and doing different things.
A few weeks ago I wrote about icebergs and talent. Icebergs also provide the perfect analogy to what a sport development system should actually look like. About 85% of an iceberg is underwater, the part that rises out of the sea is only a small part of the total berg but when we think of icebergs this is the part that comes to mind.
If the Malaysian sport system were an iceberg the athletes in Jakarta right now would be the part that floats above the water, the best we have. The part of the iceberg we don't see in Jakarta are the thousands of athletes who are not yet ready to be selected for a national team but who are involved in sport training and who form the foundation for future performance.
But these thousands of athletes don't exist in Malaysia. All sporting efforts are directed at the few athletes who do rise to the top because of chance opportunities and in spite of the lack of developmental programs provided by the associations. The result is the Podium Program and whether it is renewed, revamped, or removed Malaysia needs something like it whether national performance in Jakarta is good or not.
Mr. Sieh may be correct, perhaps Malaysia doesn't need foreign administrators, or foreign coaches for that matter, but it needs something in the high performance area and right now the Podium Program is filling that need.
Fretting over the Podium Program though is a prime example of fixing the wrong problem. Malaysian sport performance would be improved immeasurably if solid foundational programs were put in place.
What are other countries doing? These can provide good models for what Malaysia should be creating at the foundational level. Those that say they can't replicate those systems in Malaysia are simply wrong. As systems develop they begin to resemble each other more and more. To say that a system that exists in many other countries can't be implemented in Malaysia represents a peculiar view of reality.
Bill Price (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Chief Information Officer at USSA Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.