Hurdles in nurturing young talent into top athletes

Mr Lim Say Heng's report put into words what most Singaporean parents consider when they decide to sign their children up for sports in school (Why school sports matter; May 14).

But, while Mr Lim rightly pointed out that some schools have had a long history of identifying and grooming national athletes, such as Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) in the case of water polo, school sports in Singapore have not always led to outstanding sports performances later.

Let us be honest with ourselves here; the majority of Singaporean students take part in school sports with the main motivation of furthering their academic endeavours.

There is really nothing inherently distasteful here. School sports and events like the National School Games are a way for talented sporting students to enter elite schools.

I have been a beneficiary of this system. My sporting endeavours in my school years provided me with the opportunity to enter an elite junior college, and a scholarship to enter university.

But the problem with this is that while this develops school sports, it does not lead to anything afterwards. Once a student athlete finishes his education, he can hang up his boots.

Perhaps, if the objective of school sports is to teach good behaviour and reduce youth delinquency, the ecosystem of school sports plays its role perfectly.

But how do we develop more Joseph Schoolings?

School sports and the National School Games have facilitated, and even encouraged, student athletes to excel within a particular age group. In fact, coaches within the school sports system have little incentive to keep them from reaching their "full potential" within that age group, even if it means burning them out.

But, the ideal age for maximum growth within each sport is different.

For instance, for swimming and gymnastics, the age group for high performance falls within the limits of school sports. However, forsports like football, the ideal age range for high performance can vary from youth all the way to adulthood.

National sports associations (NSAs) have to cultivate an ecosystem of institutions, be it schools or clubs, for talent scouting, allowing for the nurturing and maximum growth of our young sporting talents. But the endeavours of many of the NSAs are narrow or unnavigable.

There are also other focused institutions, like the Singapore Sports School and the National Youth Sports Institute. But such institutions are inevitably forced to work within the mould of school sports, and the limitations therein.

How, then, do we develop high-performance athletes?

Goh Chui Ling (Ms)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2018, with the headline 'Hurdles in nurturing young talent into top athletes'. Print Edition | Subscribe