If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my axe” Abraham Lincoln

We live in a world where everyone is in a hurry. We are in a hurry to succeed; we are in a hurry to arrive quicker than others or than before; we rush to go further and higher; we rush to have sex before marriage; we rush to eat quickly, using instant meals; we are in a hurry to hear from friends or businesses, with e-mails traveling faster than airmail which in turn is faster than surface mail (while we become angry if someone has not responded to our e-mail within an hour); we are in a hurry to speak to friends on our cell phones (and also become angry if they do not answer immediately, expecting them to interrupt their current appointment because we are calling them). We want it all and we want it now; we want it cheap; we want it easy.

It is in that context that we can reflect on how we do sport in Zimbabwe and in the world, for we are similarly in a rush to have our children playing national sport, being awarded colours and medals and trophies.

So, WHY THE RUSH? Why are people in such a rush to have representative and ultra-competitive sport at a young age?

In the first instance, we can look at how society as a whole is in a rush. Forty years ago, there were no such things as mortgages and credit cards – if we wanted something expensive we would have to wait until we had saved up enough money to buy it. We knew the value of it and we knew the importance of it so we saved and waited. Then it all became so much easier with the “Buy now; Pay later” opportunities that banks and building societies began to offer. It did not matter that we actually pay more in the end (much more); we got what we wanted when we wanted it. For many, though, it brought about a great debt and the ‘Credit Crunch’ hit the whole world. Here in Zimbabwe a different situation arose though which made it even harder to wait. When inflation was escalating so rapidly, there was no point in saving money; if we saw something we needed or wanted in the shops today, we had to buy it today as either it would not be there tomorrow or if it was there, it would cost double the price. We could not wait.

For some time too, the ‘pop’ or ‘rock’ culture was full of the idea of ‘live for the present’. The rock group Queen sang loudly the song “I want it all”. Consider some of the lines from the song: “I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now. Here’s to the future for the dreams of youth. I’m a man with a one-track mind. Not a man for compromise and wheres and whys and living lies. Here’s to the future, hear the cry of youth: I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now.” Naturally, the youth jumped at such an idea – we want it all and we want it now. The same idea is also represented in one of the characters, Veruca Salt, in the film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. Some of the lines from her song include: “I want a feast, I want a bean feast, cream buns and dough nuts and fruitcake with no nuts so good that you could go nuts … No, now, I want a ball, I want a party … I want the world, I want the whole world, I want to lock it up in my pocket. It’s my bar of chocolate. Give it to me now. I want today. I want tomorrow.” Same message! I am in a rush to have everything now, even as a child.

We also see it in the modern culture of ‘Reality Shows’, which would seem to offer instant stardom for ‘wannabees’ instead of working through the ranks for years, learning the trade and practising in clubs and colleges and gigs. People think they do not need that training now, that raw talent is enough. They are in a hurry.

Of course, it is nothing new – there is nothing new under the sun, after all, according to the Philosopher in Ecclesiastes! In the Old Testament we read how King Saul could not wait for the prophet Samuel to arrive, as he had been instructed – he went on ahead in his haste and lost his kingdom as a result. [1 Sam 13:7-14]

It is therefore perhaps no surprise that people in sport are also in a rush to have it all now, early, immediately. So, again, why the rush?

The first reason may be in the question itself – we are in a rush because of the rush, the adrenaline rush! We want the thrills, the kicks, the rush now. It seems that there is such an adrenaline rush on the part of youngsters, though it is probably more accurate to say it is on the part of parents and coaches who seem to want the rush of the child being selected to play national sport more than the child. For them, it is a quick fix, an exciting high, a cheap thrill. The thrill could of course come later but they want it now.

Secondly, the rush is for the glory that comes with early representation. They want the fame and fortune as soon as possible. It is exactly like the typical youngster in a long-distant race (we see them at every athletics meeting) who will tear off at a ridiculously fast pace on the first lap, passing the line and the crowds in first position only to be overtaken by everyone and finish last. They had their moment of glory though! The rush may have brought temporary glory but it was cheap and worthless. So our youngsters seem to want the kicks, the kit and the kudos but not the hard work. If they only waited, the glory would be much greater.

Thirdly, the rush is due to the opportunity being there. Pupils are, after all, always encouraged to ‘seize the day’, to take every opportunity, and here is a wonderful opportunity (at least, so the people who offer the opportunity say). Some will argue that if they do not take the opportunity then someone else will so they MUST take it. And if one sports association does not take the youngster when he or she is young then another one will, so we must just accept it. Some will also argue that as other countries are doing it, then so must we, or we will be behind others. Have we never heard the ‘Tale of the Hare and the Tortoise’? The opportunity to be in a rush does not make it the right thing. As a nation, we can make a stand.

Fourthly, the rush is due to availability. The child is ready to take the opportunity and it is best for them to do it now because they may not want to do it later. But if a child is going to give up early, what is the point of coaching him? What is the merit of being able to say they represented their country at such a young age? Do people ever ask a potential employee if they were a prefect at their Primary school? What are we developing him for? If they are not rushed they are more likely to play on much longer.

Fifthly, the rush is on because of the demand. We see others doing it so we must do it. Such an argument, that states that ‘it must be right if lots of people do it’, is fallacious and superficial. In truth, it is simply the fear we will miss out if we do not follow suit [FOMO, to our teenagers]. Yet there is nothing to stop us competing at a later stage.

Sixthly, the rush is due to the pursuit of instant gratification and satisfaction. We want the pleasure of the experience without the commitment or the meaning, in the same way that people seek sexual gratification. There are laws which are intended to keep youngsters from entering into sexual relationships before the age of sixteen yet we want our youngsters to experience national representation without the necessary maturity.

Lastly, the rush is due to the sense that it is my right to play for my country whenever I want. It comes from a sense that I do not have to earn it or prove it over time but I can have it because I am better than others at it now. It is not a right; it is a responsibility, not just for a short moment but for a long time.

So society and sport like to project the positive mantra that you can have what you want now, whether young or old. The age of national representation gets lower and lower, though with no rational explanation as to why one age is selected – we do not lower the age for Prefects in our school though! Where is the logic in rushing in earlier and earlier and where will it stop? Those who ‘preach’ the message of early representation may be seen like those who present the mortgage offer: “Buy now, pay later” (when it is convenient to you, though it is rarely convenient and we do not realise just how much we will have to pay later). There are many problems with this, though. Like the characters in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory”, those who are rushed in early are either sucked away into mid-air and lost forever; they are rejected by those who selected them; they are shrunk into a tiny, unrecognisable and unnoticed nobody. Our youngsters pay for it later; they burn out or get bored. They freak out because they do not know how to handle disappointment or do not know how to wait. We have not said, “No! Wait!” so they do not know how to wait.

The Gold Rush in America led to bitter disputes, violent clashes, all for the sake of a small piece of gold. Lives were lost in the pursuit. It seems that we are in a modern day Gold Rush in the pursuit of gold medals at a young age.

So, if we have looked at the question, “Why the Rush?” we should equally consider the question, “Why the Wait?

One clear quick response is to remind ourselves that when we rush something we are more prone to make mistakes; we do not take our time to consider what we are doing and we crash. We make a big mistake by rushing our pupils in their sporting careers, especially with no consideration for the individual. A second quick analogy is to reflect that there is a mad rush when a big store holds its annual sale, when we think that we are getting a bargain. However when there are such sales, there is usually no guarantee, no insurance, no payback if something goes wrong. It may be cheaper but it often breaks sooner. We think we are on to a bargain when we have the sports representation sales. But it is usually not such a bargain, after all.

As we looked at how modern society encourages us to rush us into things, so we might look at how many other things encourage and exhort us to wait for things, especially those things that are important.

It is an age-old, unchanging truth that for a tree to grow, it must put down roots first. Trees in the Orkney Islands in the very north of Scotland have to put down deep roots before they can grow upwards so that they will be strong enough to face the strong winds and storms that come their way. The same can be true for youngsters; they need to have deep roots in their sport so that they can withstand pressure when it eventually comes at a national level.

The same message is seen in the well-known Parable of the Sower [Matthew 13] which focusses on the sower – if he does not place the seed in the right soil, it will not flourish. The preparation of the soil is crucial and takes time. Too many of our youngsters are like the seed scattered casually on the hard path; they are quickly snatched away and play no further part in sport, either at a national or even social level. Other youngsters are planted in rocky soil which has no roots; they spring up quickly as being talented and promising but wither under the heat of pressure, defeat or difficulty. Other youngsters are planted where other things choke or distract them and their talent is lost and wasted. Instead we should be nurturing these youngsters so that they bear fruit “thirty, sixty, one hundred fold”. Sadly not many of our youngsters do progress as they could and should; if only we had been more careful with how we ‘planted’ them.

Using another analogy, we know that for most food we do not cook at a high heat; we do not cook something too quickly. We cannot braai our meat when the flames are high as it will burn the outside and be tasteless. So youngsters will burn out if we ‘cook’ them too soon, too quickly.

It is interesting too to note how businessmen apply the same principle. The best piece of advice given to Tony Fernandes, the group CEO of Air Asia, was, “Learn to take things slowly.” He went on to explain this by saying that “we have to take time to develop our personality and to be ready for the next job. There is no quick fix to experience.” Another one has said that “Overnight success takes fifteen years” while another comment states that “We have to slow down in order to speed up.” What applies in business applies in life and therefore in sport for our youngsters.

And as with business, so in relationships: “True love waits”. Long-term relationships are important but must be nurtured and developed appropriately.

That is why in sport we must wait. Anyone who has played sport knows that timing is absolutely crucial. It is not power or force that counts but it is timing that determines distance and direction, as with a golf swing. If I swing too fast (thinking that I will hit it further) I am likely to slice it in one direction, hook it in the other direction or top it no distance at all. It is about correct transference of weight, or momentum at the right time. The time to win a race is not in the early stages but in the later stages.

The first reason we should wait is that our youngsters need to work for it. They need to earn it over a period of time and not simply pick it up by being bigger than others, by pitching up and showing some talent. Real talent is what stands the test of time and we are wrong to give the false impression.

The second reason we should wait is that our youngsters must be fully prepared for it, not just physically but mentally, emotionally, spiritually even. When we see youngsters representing the country at Under 19 level whose basic skills are lacking then we have not prepared our youngsters properly – we have rushed them. We need to spend more time preparing our youngsters, making them practise and practise instead of playing matches all the time – and if they complain of being bored by practice then they do not have the dedication or commitment deserving of a national honour. We need to develop them slowly and properly.

The third reason we should wait is that we need to ensure their lives are balanced. We need to give them the Big Picture, the complete picture. They need to learn why sport is important and where it fits in. We need to balance skills with values. We need to balance academics and sport and culture and service.

The fourth reason we should wait is that our youngsters will appreciate more the recognition and the responsibility that goes with it. They need to understand that it is not just an honour and privilege to represent the country but also a responsibility to continue, to ensure the investment is not wasted. They need to learn the value of the honour, in a similar way to how they need to understand the value of a house or a car by waiting. They need to learn the key values of determination, perseverance and commitment, qualities which they will need later in life.

The fifth reason we should wait is that they are more likely to continue with the sport. Education is for life and sport is integral to education so sport is for life – yet the vast majority of our youngsters do not continue with sport, even those who achieve national representation. We are doing something wrong, and it is not just a matter of there being no clubs available for them. Even at the older age of the Youth Olympics, how many of our sportsmen and women who failed to qualify for the Youth Olympics are even more determined to go on and train to qualify for the actual Olympics? Do they give up there and then because that was the only goal, because they did not succeed at first?

The sixth reason we should wait is that their ability will be multiplied. If we pace them, they will go further and be stronger. As in the Parable of the Sower, they will bear fruit thirty, sixty or a hundred times more. We might be pleased with the rushed job but if we had only taken our time and waited, nurturing and training carefully and slowly, they could and would have achieved so much more. Those who wait grow more. We do not pick fruit when we first see it on the tree – we wait for it to grow and to ripen fully.

The last reason we should wait is that it is worth it. They will be worth their wait (as opposed to weight) in gold. The desired ambition of achieving gold will come, at a higher level, and it will be worth it for the individual child and equally for the country, even if it is not worth it for the envious parent or the boastful school.

Some will say that some youngsters are not affected, that they can handle it – but many are affected. The ones who are not affected can still wait and improve even further, with the right preparation – and if they do not wait, why were they there in the first place?

So now we seriously need to consider LTAD or LTPD – Long Term Athlete (or Player) Development. Long Term Athlete Development is now a world-wide accepted philosophy, incorporated by many countries into their sports policies. The key is to get the right principles at the right age-group. Olympics bodies and sports bodies adhere to them; the International Rugby Board promotes the concept (though individual countries seem to ignore it).

In brief the principles are as follows:
Stage 1: Active Start (0-6 years)
Stage 2: FUNdamental (girls 6-8, boys 6-9)
Stage 3: Learn to Train (girls 8-11, boys 9-12)
Stage 4: Train to Train (girls 11-15, boys 12-16)
Stage 5: Train to Compete (girls 15-21, boys 16-23)
Stage 6: Train to Win (girls 18+, boys 19+)
Stage 7: Active for Life (any age participant)

[http://www.brianmac.co.uk/ltad.htm Model for LTAD and http://canadiansportforlife.ca/learn-about-canadian-sport-life/ltad-stages LTAD Stages – A clear path to better sport, greater health, and higher achievement.]

Compare this model to the same Long Term Player Development programme promoted by IRB (International Rugby Board) on their websites. [IRB website – http://www.irbsandc.com/?module=2&section=10&subsection=20 and http://www.irbrugbyready.com/index.php?section=56&language=en The stages of the Long Term Player Development Pathway]:

Stage 1: FunAge guide: 6-12 – Player: PLAYS – Coach: GUIDES – Content: Learning to move, basic Rugby skills
Stage 2 : DevelopmentAge guide: 12-16 – Player: EXPLORES – Coach: TEACHES – Content: Learning the Game
Stage 3 : ParticipationAge guide: 15-18 – Player: FOCUSES – Coach: CHALLENGES – Content: Playing the Game, developing the player
Stage 4: PreparationAge guide: 17-21 – Player: SPECIALISES – Coach: FACILITATES – Content: Reaching full potential
Stage 5: PerformanceAge guide: 20 & over – Player: INNOVATES – Coach: EMPOWERS – Content: Consistency of performance

Are we not so busy trying to win tournaments and push youngsters into international arenas when the emphasis at that age is meant to be fun and development?

So, why do we push our youngsters, why do we rush them? We cannot just replace the child when he or she is burned out – we cannot replace a child’s youth. Equally, the child cannot have her cake and eat it as Veruca Salt wanted it: “I want today. I want tomorrow” – she wanted “a feast, a bean feast” and she got a bean feast, but it was a ‘has-been’ feast! It is not about rush but root. It is about pace, not place; it is about timing; it is about the Big Picture; it is about Long-Term Victory not Short-Term Success. It is about“Ease and Grace” (to use a sporting term), not rush and tumble. It should be about skills (often basic skills), not thrills (often cheap thrills). It should be about development, not achievement at a young age. Development must come before Achievement – we must develop skills, values, character and talent so that we can develop their future.

The reality is that, as with Charlie in “Willy Wonk and the Chocolate Factory”, this is actually a morality test, for us as responsible adults. We teach values at school and at home –so what value are we placing on a youngster when we simply use them? What value are we teaching them when we push them? Our youngsters need roots, need time, need skills, need values. Will we pass that test? That is a far more important question than how many youngsters we get into age-group national teams.

There is nothing wrong with credit cards – but only if there is already money in the bank. If we spend what is not there yet (but what we think or hope will come in) we are in trouble. We must not use our youngsters like credit cards but rather help them to save up for when they have enough to deal with what comes before them.

The only hurry we should be in is to ensure that we pass that test.