SPORTS schools are normally busy in the month of October and November when the national trials begin for the new intake.
The selection at the national and state levels are more often like a “pesta” (carnival) and are full of excitement.
During the trials, parents and families will come in full force to support their children with high hopes of seeing their kids being selected.
After a short briefing by the principal, which I have done before many times in the past, the trials begin and the aspiring athletes are assembled according to their choice of sports.
The school usually admits students between the ages of 13-17 and 11-12 for gymnastics, diving and swimming. Minimum academic qualification is required to equip talented athletes with the knowledge, skills and values.
The admission of student athletes to sports schools is through the process of talent search, talent scouting and nomination by national sports associations and the National Sports Council.
The coaches and trainers rely on their experience and good judgement to select the talents (the coach’s eye).
In most sports, taller and stronger kids have an added advantage.
In team sports, they are the most visible on the field with their commanding presence and ability to score the winning points.
In individual sports, the focus is on those who are faster and stronger than their opponents and arrive at the finish line, first. All these catch the eyes of talent scouts and coaches.
In December, an official letter will be sent to all successful athletes to join the respective sports schools in January. An orientation week will be held to welcome the new students and the school system will be introduced.
Since it’s a fully residential sports school, athletes who have strong bonds with their family will feel quite emotional due to the separation. Coaches and school counsellors will help them assimilate to the hostel and school life.
But we do lose some potential talents in the early stages.
Those who are homesick will be the first to leave. Then, those who eventually opt out are those who tend to lose interest along the way and those who are injured.
The longer training sessions and academic classes also leave some social impact on students’ lives.
Some parents will decide to switch back to a mainstream school when they see “no marked improvement” in the child’s sports progress, or if the grades did not meet the agreed-upon benchmarks.
Moving into the 21st century, sports schools must strive to be the pipeline for the national teams by supporting the development of youth athletes and supplying the talents for the country.
In order to do that, a new direction is needed to fine-tune the process, review selection criteria and selecting the right athletes for the sports schools.
The identification of talent in sport is often erratic and subjective.
In terms of development, a one-size-fits-all approach too often overshadows an individual development pathway – leading to injuries, de-motivation and early drop-out from sports.
Coaches could have overlooked the potential of the ones who bloom later in their physical development and are not as dominant during their younger days.
This may lead to talented but late-maturing athletes to miss their chances due to the limited number of spots in the talent development programme.
Schools must gain competitive advantage by selecting the right talents and do the right things with them at the right time.
Because talent is ideally identified during a period of accelerated physical growth, the maturity and development of the athletes are crucial but sadly, they are rarely taken into account.
A well-known consequence is the relative age effect, where children born early in the year have more chances of being selected due to physical advantages.
A well-developed Talent Identification Programme (TID) at different age levels is the key to give that fair chance to every athlete as they pursue their dreams at sports schools.
I must admit that we may have overlooked talents in the past.
Sports schools will have to work closely with all the sports stakeholders in the ecosystem to ensure a seamless progression of our student athletes into the national setup to identify and develop talent all year round.
I think, it’s also pertinent for students to pass a written psychological test to assess their mental strength and aptitude and they need to be interviewed by the school’s senior management before being considered for admittance.
Sports schools should consider having “walk-ins” for trials, TID and sports specific selection approach all-year round to produce future champions – and not only identify talents once towards the end of the year.
The writer is an avid sports fan. He has retired from the Education Ministry, was an excellent principal of Tuanku Mahkota Ismail Sports School (Johor); vice-principal of Bukit Jalil Sports School (KL) and is currently involved in various grassroots programmes.