Athletes’ Dais

by Penny Werthner Baies

“Ever since I was eleven years old, I can remember my coach, Marties Grohe, telling me how to behave when I lost a race. We have sayings that are taught to young athletes as they approach the Spartakiad competitions, and one of them is that you will always win graciously and lose with dignity, because to do anything else is an insult to sport, and, after all, you are trying to become a sportsman. “

“No matter how good you think you are, you always have to be prepared for the fact someone better may come along. When that happens you have to honour and respect them for their ability. That’s what sport is all about. “

swimmer Roland Matthes *

Both quotes are taken from the late Doug Gilbert’s book, The Miracle Machine (Champion, May 1980), which takes an inside look at East German’s sport system.

The quotes made me wonder. They made me wonder about the conversations that must take place between athletes and their coaches on this side of the world. I wonder too about a problem I perceive as being a loss of our perspective of sport. We’ve lost sight of the many values of sport and we’ve lost concern for the effect sport is having on those involved in it. Let me illustrate by looking first at one end of the sport continuum and then the other.

First let’s look at the children who are involved in sport and what they are being taught.

According to Terry Orlick and Cal Botterill, the authors of Every Kid Can Win, kids in sport are learning that winning is everything. Coaches and parents are demanding instant success. The kids are to start as champions and are to continue as champions as they grow up in sport. But, say Orlick and Botterill, the kids want fun, they want play, they want action. They add that while skills and expertise should be taught, at this level all children should be able to participate. Ability should not be a prerequisite.

“… the outcome of the child is infinitely more important than the outcome of the game …”

If we, as parents, coaches and people in sport showed more concern for the child, then perhaps many more would enjoy their sport activities and would stay involved. And then perhaps more would go on to the elite level. After all, it’s not just the untalented kids who drop out. If we were more concerned with the child, perhaps we would teach them some of the values of sport and sportsmanship so that in the future, when they’re in a tough competitive situation, they would have developed the skills with which to cope. They would also have a greater sense of self- esteem and would be in a position to accept defeat if and when it comes.

What about the other end of the continuum, the elite level? Again I believe, having come up through our system, that little is taught except that winning is all-important! It seems that most are never taught that sport can be fun, a challenge to yourself and within yourself, and that winning is indeed a legitimate goal, but not the only one.

Orlick’s new book, In Pursuit of Excellence (Champion, July 1980) discusses psychological tools which elite athletes and coaches can use to better cope with the problems and stresses of highly competitive sport. It makes me think of Matthes’ words. In parts of Europe, coping strategies for competition are an important part of sport training. Here, we do so little of it. And I am not denying that winning is important. Winning is very important. We, as athletes, do not spend hours every day, week after week, year after year, to lose. Our goal is to be the best, to give it everything. But what if we do lose? How do we learn to cope with it when all our time has been spent in learning how to win? American swimmer Shirley Babashoff is well-known for having had no idea how to cope with her losses to the East Germans in Montréal. And I can give an example that is closer to home.

Several years ago, flying home after a series of European competitions, I sat next to a teammate. She was a new member of the Canadian team, and,talented — good enough to excel internationally in time. In these series of meets, however, she had performed very badly. I asked her what she thought had happened. She replied that she really didn’t know. She said she’d been very nervous and had blown her technique, messing up race after race. Her coach had said nothing; no discussions, no comments, no questions. Trying to think of ways to help her, I suggested she talk to her coach and tell him what she would like from him — whether it was discussions of her races, her training, her thoughts about other competitors, and so on. She also needed to learn how to control her anxiety level and to improve her concentration because of the technical nature of her event.

At the time, this was all I could do — make suggestions. Now I believe that a great deal more time needs to be spent preparing athletes psychologically, whether in order to simply understand and appreciate the values of sport or to come to learn how to cope effectively with the stresses of sport. Without some help, a lot of Canadian athletes will never come close to realizing their full potential.

* double gold medallist, Mexico 1968, Munich 1972 and bronze medallist, Montréal 1976.

Pas de version française