• Jason Wulfsohn // MSc (Med) Exercise Science

Editor's Musings: This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race


The South African school sport scene is possibly one of the most active and competitive on this tiny blue speck we call earth. I know that I love talking about school sport results around the braai. Who’s dominating the cricket arena this year? Did you hear about Generic High School’s dominance in the polo pool? So on, and so on, ad nauseum… I can’t be the only one who has this strange obsession with school sport, as the Classic Clashes and numerous school sport websites would suggest. While this is all very interesting and makes for good conversation around the water cooler, I have seen some potential problems. In the words of Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap!”

Disclaimer: This article doesn’t address the very serious educational disparity in our country, where most South African children are more concerned about simple stationery than the prospect of school sport. This article speaks to those who were fortunate enough to attend or work at these wonderful establishments.

I don’t think I need to find a reference to back up the notion that South African sports fans are some of the harshest critics around, and the schools haven’t escaped their wrath. I’m reminded of a school in Pretoria whose principal got to the point of writing an open letter lambasting the negative remarks inspired by a run of poor results from the rugby 1st team. In this letter, it’s pointed out that barring the results of one team, the school was still very competitive across the board, and never mind the academic and cultural successes. I don’t think it’s healthy that it’s got to this point, but the reality is that schools have to adapt or die. Players are being poached, parents are becoming agents for their children, sports centres are being built, and some pupils might be turning to banned substances to gain an edge. It’s a marketing game and an arms race to stay competitive on the sports field. Modern schools are a far cry from those which our parents attended. I genuinely believe that an overly-competitive and increasingly professional environment at schools could be placing pupils at risk of burnout and other stress-related problems. Not to mention what happens to a child who has put all their effort into sport at the expense of academics, and for whatever reason, doesn’t make the cut.

Enter the sport scientist. The hero. The lynchpin… Well, maybe not quite as dramatic as that, but we’re still darn useful to have around.

Yes, we’ll be contributing to the up-scaling of the arms race, but we can do it in a responsible manner. A sport scientist who finds him or herself at a school is presented with a unique environment that should be managed with care. Despite the drawbacks of the school sport arms race, there is opportunity for sport scientists to step into this environment and affect positive change, even if it is small to start off with. As it is primarily a support-staff role, the sport scientist can bring evidence-based advice to the melting pot by being well-informed, up-to-date, and by maintaining a good rapport with colleagues. Remember, “evidence-“, not “ego-based” decisions will get the best out of the situation.

Lastly, pragmatism will serve everyone’s purposes. Let’s not treat school athletes like professionals, because they’re not. They still have homework, music lessons, and awkward social events to worry about. Rather, look for the “low hanging fruit” and pick your battles. This way you won’t work yourself or the players to death in pursuit of those glamorised marginal gains, while improvements of consequence are possibly right in front of our noses. “Train smart. Perform better.” Are any basics being done incorrectly that can be easily fixed? Most likely. Coaches aren’t all-knowing and shouldn’t have to be responsible for every aspect of performance. I don’t mean to perpetuate the perception that sport scientists are glorified warm-up specialists, but when working with a new team or individual, I’ll always look first to the warm-up. I see it is an easy place to start, that can improve performance while reducing the risk of injury. This is especially important for young sportsmen and women, as this is when they develop good habits. After those ducks are in a row, it’s time to move onto other matters.

In the end, schools want to, and kind of need to, remain competitive on the sports field. We can enter this scene as professional in our conduct, but not falling into the trap of treating school athletes as professionals. I think that sport scientists can add true value to the school sport scene with evidence-based counsel, responsible practices, and remembering that there’s more to school than sport.

Moving swiftly along… This penultimate issue of SPORT SCIENCE COLLECTIVE for 2016 has come out despite it being a very busy period for many. The contributors have all had to make some kind of sacrifice to make this issue possible, for which I am tremendously grateful. Simone do Cormo provides some useful advice on nutrition for ladies. We interview Dr Jason Tee on sport science matters and some of the changes in his life. Dr Wilbur Kraak attempts to break some of our preconceived notions about rugby training. David Leith has a fitting piece on selecting good running shoes. Then, to end off, I try my hand at discussing stats. I’m sure there’s something interesting for everyone within this issue.

#School #SportScience #YouthSports #Responsiblepractice

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