What is wrong with British sport?

At the 1994 Commonwealth Games Australia won 182 medals (87 golds, 52 silvers, 43 bronzes). England, Scotland and Wales combined won 164 medals (42 golds, 56 silvers, 66 bronzes).

How can 15 million Australians win over twice as many golds as 56 million Brits? And do we really care? If we do, then it is time we began to examine our sporting performances in detail, because somewhere along the line we are selling ourselves short.

Coaches are the key
In a recent article in Swim Canada magazine, the world-renowned coach Cecil Colwin made the following statements: 'The history of swimming has shown that the sport has improved faster in those eras when the leadership came from a group of dynamic, forward-thinking, charismatic coaches.... The leadership of capable and inspired coaches, locked in keen rivalry, can help a country consistently produce motivated elite swimming teams.... The future starts with the coaches....'

I believe that in Britain we give too little respect to the role and importance of coaches. Perhaps this is our own fault, as coaches, in that we have not presented a professional enough image. We must change this. There is a need for coaches to work through the National Association of Sports Coaches to create a belief in and a respect for our skills and our importance in national sporting development. We must persuade both the Government and the governing bodies of sport to recognise the role played by coaches and to set in motion programmes which improve coaching skills and involve more coaches in decision-making.

Is it our national attitude?
In an earlier Swim Canada article, Colwin again commented on Australian results in the Commonwealth Games compared to those of Canada. He talked about the Australian attitude of 'giving it a go' and 'never quitting'. 'The development of a great sporting tradition was based on fair play and never - repeat, never - quitting while you still have life and breath in you.'

In the same article, Australian Head Swim Coach Don Talbot said that 'Australians are doers, Americans are doers, Canadians are - I won't say it'. Perhaps he could equally well have referred to the Brits in there somewhere. Talbot feels that the Canadian swim programme is more athlete-driven than coach-driven. 'In Australia it's more coach-driven and that's more likely to succeed.'

I agree with both sentiments above. I wonder if success in sport is seen as being important enough to us in Britain by the people who make decisions and allocate funds at government level. There is no doubt in my mind that sport touches the lives of most people in Britain, and yet somehow we still see it as a peripheral thing. I believe that our whole national psyche would be uplifted if we had more sporting success at world level. Our image abroad would be improved and could well lead to greater commercial and industrial success.

If we really wanted to achieve this, we could tum the British sporting scene around in a very short period of time. We have great advantages over many of our rivals. Our large population in such a small geographical area brings great benefits in the availability of training and competitive opportunities. Most sports already have a well-established infrastructure of teaching and coaching schemes. All we need is the will to succeed at world level.

How the Aussies do it
The Australian Institute of Sport has clearly had a J major impact on sporting development in Australia. The massive flow of government funding into the Institute has led to the development of sports science and testing specific to elite sports, and this has now been replicated in other states of Australia. The coaching programmes of the AIS have set a high standard of coaching and training and, equally important, have challenged coaches in other programmes to become better at their jobs.

For instance, the individual club coaches in swimming have had to improve their set-ups or risk losing talented swimmers to the AIS. Many have taken up the challenge with great success. According to Forbes Carlyle: 'The majority of our best-performing swimmers prefer to remain in their home-based programmes.... In Victoria at the Commonwealth Games, Australia won 19 individual gold medals, of which only six were won by four AIS-based swimmers, the rest by eight home-based swimmers. In Rome, at the 1994 World Championships, Australia J won 13 medals. All of these were won by home-trained swimmers; none from the AIS'. In other words, the Institute has been a major influence, both in itself, and, perhaps more significantly, on the home-based coaches.

The interesting thing is that the AIS was set up by the government following very poor Australian performances in the 1976 Olympic Games. Perhaps the British government could be persuaded to do something similar in this country. We need to make a real investment in the development of our coaches if we are to succeed. I fervently believe that Britain can make, and should be making, a major impact on world sport. Hope springs eternal? I just hope that I am still around when it finally happens.

Terry Denison

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