JUNIOR DEVELOPMENT: The Way Forward for Southern African Sports

Qualification for world championships, as well as winning medals at such events, is always a product of hard work, dedication and commitment by the players, technical teams, national sport associations (NSAs), governments and sponsors. Fans also throng the stadiums to support wholeheartedly the engagement of their athletes and teams in competitive and friendly matches.
Qualifying for finals of major international events raises the bar of expectations on the part of sports lovers in Southern African nations. Meeting them is another thing altogether. To this end, there is need for strategic planning on the part of NSAs to sustain the pursuit of excellence by national teams for both men and women and at all levels.
Southern African nations need to start qualifying for the finals of junior tournaments at continental and international levels. This will lay a strong foundation for improved performances by the senior national teams in the future. This calls for meticulous planning on the part of the regional sports confederations and NSAs.
For Southern Africa to continue registering successes and rising up the ranks of various international sports federations, there is need for greater prioritisation of and investment in grassroots programmes and junior development. “Catching them young” should be the catch phrase and approach for all NSAs in Southern Africa. Successful countries in world sport from both developed and developing countries such as Australia, Brazil, China, Cuba, Spain, Germany, and Holland have invested heavily in junior development programmes, sports academies and schools of excellence.
The existence of lucrative, viable and well-managed league structures at all levels is also a big plus factor for development of national teams. For example, a simple survey of Southern Africa would most probably reveal the absence of junior structures for more than half of them. There are no junior sports leagues to provide for rigorous skills development and competition at an early age. This is in direct contrast to modern sports science.
In terms of sports science, the Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) approach has been widely adopted by many sports organisations and countries. The LTAD indicates that it takes 8-10 years to produce a world-class athlete.
This means that the NSAs need to start identifying athletes who will represent their countries at major games such as the 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2024 Summer Olympic Games now. It follows that if there was no deliberate attempt to identify and develop a group of athletes for the 2014 and 2018 editions of the FIFA World Cup or the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympic Games, Southern African countries have already missed the boat. Any qualification or success for these events will be achieved through lots of hard work combined with good fortune.
Over and above, having good development programmes, the NSAs and their stakeholders must make deliberate efforts to expose young athletes at invitational tournaments before major games. In addition, the NSAs need to utilise their bi-lateral relations in ensuring periodic training attachments for talented players at major clubs and academies in Europe, Asia, North and South America.
Such training and competition attachments help to reduce incidences of stage fright for young athletes when they become involved in official competitions.
In addition, NSAs and National Olympic Committees (NOCs) need to take active interest in the contractual arrangements for management, marketing and sponsorship for successful and talented young athletes. To adopt a laissez faire approach on this particular matter would leave young Southern African athletes vulnerable to the whims and operations of player scouts and agents most of whom do not have the interests of these players at heart.
Sport development and transformation needs to be guided by target-setting and performance measurement both on the field of play and in institutional development.
Without objective and agreed performance targets, it is difficult to measure the success or failure of any organisation. Sport in Southern Africa still has a long way to go in terms of junior development.
It has great potential to become a viable industry engaging thousands of youngsters in gainful employment and activity. It can also contribute greatly to the socio-economic development of the region. However, sport development needs stable but innovative and visionary leadership to guide its development and transformation.
The way forward is marked with milestones, which must be religiously pursued and attained. The future of Southern African sport is already here with us. The future is indeed bright. Very bright! Sport administrators and coaches must keep the fires burning through sound strategies, plans and decisions. Corporate sponsors also need to come on board in a big way and not leave everything for Governments.  
Young Southern Africans have now proven beyond reasonable doubt that they, indeed, have the talent to compete with the best in the world, earn a living for themselves through sport and make their countries and the region as a whole very proud. What they need are the right support services, which in most cases do not require a lot of money, just good planning and management.
There will, obviously, be ups and downs on the way but compromising on high standards and failure are not options. They should never be!

June 2013
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