Bricks, mortar and high performance inefficiency

12 Nov 2013 Posted by

Every Monday, The Times, a national newspaper here in South Africa, gives me the opportunity to share some thoughts around a topical sports story from a science and high performance management perspective.  Run under the title “Dr Know” (yes, I cringe every time, though there’s nothing actually wrong with it!), it’s a chance for me to tackle issues ranging from doping to performance analysis to injury management in elite sport (you can read all the articles at this link).

This past week, I wrote a piece that is, as usual, SA-centric, but the response has been good and I think the concepts are relevant to everyone, regardless of social, cultural and political factors.  And so below is an expanded version of that article, with a few more thoughts based on some conversations I had following the publication.


A step is not the same as a journey

Adapted from article originally published in The Times, Monday 11 November 2013

Last week, Lusapho April raced through the streets of New York to claim third place in one of the most competitive marathons in the world.  It had been six years since a South African reached the podium of a Marathon Major – the last was Hendrik Ramaala, and despite a rich history of running success, and what we’d like to think is a culture of running, we’ve become largely anonymous on the global running circuit.  So, April’s performance was heralded with huge excitement as the “breakthrough” return to global prominence for South Africa, and celebrated by fans for what it was – a beacon of aspiration and possibility, not only for his short-term future, but for aspirant young runners who now have something tangible to emulate, rather than to dream about.

Also last week, I had the pleasure of conducting research on a group of five elite Kenyans with my colleague Dr Jordan Santos of Spain.  We had flown a first group of five (another two groups to come) to South Africa for a week, and put them through a range of tests to help us understand the physiology of these extra-ordinary athletes.  During some downtime one evening, we took the group to dinner, and quite predictably, discussion turned to elite running – as much as we are all fascinated by the physiology, learning about the economic and cultural factors driving running success in Kenya is equally intriguing.


Kenyan wisdom

A bit of context first – earlier that day, they’d been tested at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, where I work.  The day’s testing involved biomechanics analysis and DXA scans.  They then travelled to the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport, a new facility in the town of Stellenbosch, which is a base of operations for two high profile rugby teams here in SA, and also plays host to numerous international sports teams on their Southern Hemisphere training camps.  Our Kenyan runners were based here for the testing week, and we were collaborating with researchers at the University of Stellenbosch, just a few minutes from SAS.  So, if you’re keeping count, that’s three world-class centers for sports medicine, sports science and elite athletes within a 45 minute drive of one another.

The Kenyans were blown away by this.  A short car trip separated three world-class facilities, far superior to anything they had in the whole of Kenya.  It’s just as well we didn’t also take the Kenyans to the town of Potchefstroom and Pretoria, and then via Durban to Cape Town, because each of these places have equally amazing high performance infrastructure.  In a world of bricks and mortar, we lack for very little in South Africa.  Yes, it’s not as deep as the UK, Europe and Australia, and the ‘premium’ sports science on offer at their flagship facilities is more specific and advanced, but to a visitor, we are decidedly ‘first world’ in our high performance infrastructure.

One such visitor was Anthony, one of the Kenyans.  Over dinner, he asked me why, with such ‘privilege’ and opportunity, we do not produce more world-class talent in distance running?   As any scientist would do in such as situation (and because I didn’t really know enough to pitch my answer!), I turned the question back to him: “You have achieved success, you don’t need to speculate about the reasons, you already know what it takes, so why do you think it is?”.

Now, my experience of Kenya’s elite runners is that they’re very gentle, thoughtful people, and Anthony was no different.  After a moment or two of consideration, he had seemingly weighed up the internal contradiction in his original question, and had his answer.  “It’s because you give too much, and it makes people too comfortable.  There is nothing to strive for”.

Now, Anthony should be forgiven for not entirely understanding how South Africa’s socio-economic situation and history have impacted high performance sport – the reality in South Africa is that most of our athletes are “given” very little, if anything at all.  With the exception of rugby, cricket and football, we are massively under-resourced, and so the reality is that our world-class high performance infrastructure, so abundant and impressive to those who wish they had it, is not actually accessible to most South Africans.  I dare say there are many South African athletes who look at our high performance centers, just like Anthony did, and wonder how they might get a piece of the action?  They may as well be in Nairobi, in that regard.

Because what has happened is that high performance sport has become a “for-profit business” in South Africa, which is ludicrous because, by any global standard other than the USA, high performance sport absolutely requires government support to sustain it.

The result, in the absence of adequate government funding, is that money gets you through the door, not talent, because bottom lines become more important that podiums.  This is not a criticism of each role player within the high performance system, because it’s about survival for them.  Rather, the problem is the system, and somewhere along the way we have created enormous inefficiencies that ultimately compromise performance.


The efficiency problem

What we have, then, is a situation in South Africa where we have the pool of potential athletes (the raw material), we have the expertise to ‘mine’ that talent (the coaches, the managers, administrators and sports scientists and doctors), and we have the ‘equipment’ and facilities to mine it effectively in our half a dozen world class academies and institutions.

We fail, however, because we do not link all three.  Talented athletes rarely get high level coaching, and left to fend for themselves, they become ‘subsistence’ athletes with no long-term strategy or guidance.  We fail to develop coaching intellect, because there’s no incentive to be a coach when there are so few athletes or sustainable career paths, and we build amazing facilities that cater more to international teams (rivals) and ‘semi-professional’ teams that to those who benefit most from the opportunities.

This all comes as a result of of a crippled administrative and funding system, propped up by under-resourced volunteers who cannot possibly meet the burden of fund-raising, strategic planning and operational execution, and who bend under the weight of either corrupt or incompetent political appointees.  The end result?  Those who need the high performance support don’t get it, while those who don’t really need it have it.  90% of our potential leaks out, evaporates and is lost to the elements forever.


The real problem – we have it backwards

But this is all too easy – it’s too easy to say “give more money, more opportunities”.  Arguably, that helps.  But what Anthony’s thougtful answer really hinted at, at least its second part, was the idea that we haven’t created a desire to strive for something better.  In fact, we have it backwards, and what Anthony has understood, and what we have failed to create, is the value of aspiration and purpose.

He and a thousand other athletes train three times a day, pushing their bodies through fatigue and pain in the pursuit of the highest possible goal – a better life.  What helps Anthony is that he has seen the possibilities for himself, rather than having an abstract dream of them.  In Kenya, most of the elite runners come from one tribe, the Kalenjin, and the towns of Eldoret and Iten are so dense with internationally successful runners, that every person is connected to a champion in some way.  As a result, every young Kenyan knows exactly what it takes.  They also know that success brings huge rewards – the average annual salary in Kenya is $1000; winning a Major Marathon is worth at least $130,000.

That adds up to big incentive, plus huge aspiration.  What Anthony’s answer hints at is that in South Africa, we have neither, but instead have invested in bricks and mortar, rather than people to first create a culture and build the intellectual capital for success.  We have attempted to create aspiration by giving to those who have not yet achieved, and the result is that it lowers the bar to a level where being good is good enough.  This is not a system that ever drives greatness, and so we reap what we sow in mediocrity.


Better people make people better

But even incentives and aspiration are not enough, because without a realistic opportunity, they are just daydreams.  The third element that is necessary is a pathway, and the support to move along that pathway to actually realize that dream.  And this requires people at every stage – the school teacher who introduces the sport to a young child, followed by the teacher who first introduces skills, discipline and tactical awareness.  The journey from school level to the top step of the podium is punctuated not by fancy facilities and state-of-the-art equipment, but by knowledge and passion of people on the ground, who in spite of dusty fields and run-down gym equipment produce champions by providing support and desire to get better.  To quote Anthony, they support “something to strive for”.

So the solution is not academies and buildings and institutions, it is people, and the institutional memory and intellectual capital created over years and years of trial and error, success and failure, and the re-investment of those learned failures.  The facilities and structures are merely the tools that enable very good people to do very good work.  My good friend and inspiration Paul Treu, currently coaching Kenya’s 7s rugby team, always says that “better people make people better”, and this is the fundamental truth.  Not that better facilities, or equipment, or technology, or even science.  But people, who should not be viewed as cost-centers but assets, but rarely are.  We fail in SA sport because our best people are marginalized and under-resourced, and instead we invest too heavily in things that ironically build higher walls than ever to keep people out.

In Lusapho April, we have such a person.  In Elana Meyer and Bruce Fordyce, we have legends who are trying to grow the aspiration with their distance running projects.  What we really need is further people-investment, and the right incentives to capitalize on our potential.


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