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The Invention of America: Struggling for “Physical Literacy”

"If you want to be an Olympic champion, you need to choose your parents very well."
— Anonymous

"The coaches with greater knowledge train at elite level, however, coaches with greater knowledge must work in the previous stages, fundamentals, learn to train, and the different stages to train." –Istvan Balyi

triathlete Dave Salo, coach of the Irvine Novaquatics, has intrigued more than one observer, including Glenn Mills, who had this to say after visiting the Novaquatics pool to film several Olympic swimmers: "Watching around the pool of Irvine, one sees Olympic swimmers such as Lenny Krayzelberg, Jason Lezak, Scott Tucker, and Staciana Stitts, in addition to many other incredible athletes. The swimmers at this level perfectly understand the instructions given to them, and do not need much more. They are motivated, and they really put attention to details. HOWEVER, when they do not do so, Salo appears and takes part. He demands commitment and physically defies them much more than any person imagines. The mileage probably will not fill the expectations of many coaches, but, in this program, nobody worries about what they think of them. They train hard, in addition to being a team of athletes who really enjoy their sport." 

In Mexico, the creation of an athlete is not a matter of luck. It demands patience, and is an adventure in constant creation. It requires of a TEAM and people willing to learn in spite of the cultural difficulties, the prejudices toward feminine gender, the "machismo"on both sides (females and males) — a form of sickly control and stagnation, including a narrow vision on the part of certain parents, manifested in little support and/or and or willingness to work together.

Javier Gris Cid, along with his sister, initiated a triathlon pilot project in November 2000.  The vision of their mother, Ruth Cid Flores, toward the creation of unique children within the culture has its history. Virgilio Cid, Javier’s 88-year-old grandfather, was one of Oaxaca’s first track stars. At that time, the races were 100m, 200m and, in some cases, 400m. Virgilio has vivid memories of those races, in which he recorded chronos of 24 and 59 seconds in the last two distances.

Ruth Cid Flores, was the first maratonista woman in Oaxaca. She grew under the advice of Javier’s father, who trained her in short distances. At 23 years of age, she initiated her own adventure, competing in longer distances. In order to compete, she had to hide in the races because organizers said, "This is not for women…nobody is going to watch after you." Ruth transmitted her perseverance and mental toughness to her children without a doubt. How does one develop a young athlete in a country considered within the world’s map as "third world" or "underdeveloped?" 

Our friend Glenn has provided some of the answers, and has been part of this project, visiting us twice in Oaxaca for clinics. Javier and Ruth also participated in Glenn’s summer swim camp in Buffalo, NY, as a follow up to their education and technical formation. Glenn knows first hand that it takes intense personal commitment as well as parental involvement to reach the elite level in swimming. In one article he writes: "When I was a young age-group swimmer, my Dad would wake me up each morning, rain or shine, with singing. I’d struggle out of bed at 5:00 am, drag my feet down the hallway to the kitchen, and there would be my Dad, waiting for me with a big smile and a hot bowl of oatmeal." At age 14, Glenn decided publicly that he would try to one day represent the USA in the Olympic Games. Glenn, a swimmer since the age of five, followed his brothers’ footsteps, and reached the National Championships at 15 years of age. At age 16, he finished sixth, and at age 18, he was the best in the US. In 1980, Glenn made the US Olympic Team; unfortunately, the US decided to boycott the Moscow Games. Glenn was part of the best swim program of the time, the Cincinnati Marlins. The Marlins placed almost 40 swimmers in the 1980 Olympic Trials, won the National Championship, and placed 6 of those swimmers on the 1980 US Olympic Team.

triathlon startNevertheless, "it is not the Olympic Games that make an Olympic athlete, it is the preparation," said Jesse Owens. The paradigm "identification of talents" obtains all its validity when conjugated with "developing talents." Javier Gris Cid’s history follows the second paradigm. After four years in the project, Javier is national champion of his age group. His sister, age 14, finished fourth (and in a later race beat the national champion by more than a minute). The trajectory of these two children and the other nine who made the team (with less time in the program) is the result of a different approach. Emphasis is given to the technical formation and the acquisition of basic mental abilities, thinking later about developing a talent within the group.

In the first International Conference of the American Triathlon Federation 2004 (USAT), "The Art and Science of Triathlon," Doctor Deborah Hoare presented a project initiated in 1997 in Australia, with its results in different stages up to 2003. The main objective was TO IDENTIFY and TO DEVELOP talents in triathlon, taking into account young people from 16 to 19 years ("juniors"). In 2001, 39% of this pool were professional, being in the elite team or sub-23. Among them: Craig Walton, Chris McCormack, Nicole Hackett, Courtney Atkinson, Emma Snowsill (world champion in 2003).

To identify means to look for the best within a country and a culture. Australia is in an enviable position in terms of identifying talent because it is committed to the physical education of its people. In general, Australia is a society that performs outdoor sports and enjoys nature. Eight million out of 30 million inhabitants practice swimming. In a single Australian city, you will often find three or four pools in a very restricted range. Culturally, Australia is directed to the practice of many sports, with camps and clinics organized to develop talent once it is "identified." Athletic education is oriented toward biomechanics more than toward physical preparation. The primary school has a manual of triathlon.

In Mexico, where we do not have such a powerful culture of sport, we need to form an athlete from the basics. We need to begin with an educational program to teach the basic mental abilities, such as how to focus, how to concentrate, and how to be disciplined. We also need to educate the families of athletes. In addition, in Mexico, it is not common to find athletes with a family history like Javier’s and Ruth’s. Physical activities are seen as consequences of bad behavior. Families do not develop a taste for nature ("la promenade," as the French will say). Ruth and Javi’s grandfather used to take his children to the mountains, and the tradition persists. Ruth’s mother follows that beautiful ritual of communion with nature.

triathlete family In societies where there is a solid culture of sport, it is possible to allow the crossover of talents arriving late from other sports, for example, Loretta Harrop, Sheila Taormina (Olympian first in swimming, then in triathlon), Julie Swail (Olympic medalist in water polo in Sydney), Peter Roberson, etc. In Mexico, we need to create a culture by teaching kids to enjoy their bodies and nature as the first step.

The importance of the formative stage is clearly defined by Dr. Itsvan Balyi in the conference mentioned above. The Hungarian scientist, resident at Victoria Center in Canada (NCI-BC), who also works for swimming in England and other sports in Ireland, explained how races for young people were reframed (after the arrival of an Australian coach). The English system was set up in a way that there was a yearly nonstop racing program, which did not allow international performance. Formation did not exist, there were just races.

Balyi insists on young people’s lack of formation in most countries, even those that are considered "more advanced." The first window for development continues to be 6-8 years for girls and 6-9 for boys. Most countries do not have a well-established formative policy, which is why we have professionals or elite with huge deficiencies, impossible to fill (if we speak in a genetic language, the gene induction is done at these ages).

Countries with a structure and with a sport-oriented culture can identify talents of the few million inhabitants. New Zealand with three millions offers an Iron Kids series with 3000 children participating; in the last Olympic Games, they won gold and silver. Countries without a sport structure or a culture-based physical education should speak of talent identification from the age of seven in order to be able to form them. Or in its defect, the process of formation of talents could be raised.

My approach has been formation. I can speak of three talents in triathlon initiated four years ago — Javier and Ruth are two of them. I have not found a talent at the age of 13 or 14 years without previous formation. It is lacking what Salo knows as a requirement, a formation that allows you to work only fine points. On the other hand, besides the main team, I have a group of seven children between three and eight years. From this "pool," I could say that only one has talent and another one is physically promising. My work will continue with all of them and time will say if they get to be talented. The eight-year-old boy must be educated to be a reality. He needs to learn to focus, contain his impulses, listen, and, mainly, "learn to learn." This present stage is fundamental in order to learn the basic abilities to get to be a true talent.

Gaps in the universal system of sport with irremediable consequences exist, according to Balyi. One of them is the presence of numerous competitions, and insufficient formative training. The damages done between 6-10 and 10-16 years of age can never totally be corrected, which is to say, the absence of an extensive development of basic motor abilities before 11 and 12 years. In other words, these athletes will never reach their maximum potential.

"To detect" talents is often stipulated, instead of identifying and developing. It is really an irony. "To detect them" by means of competing as it is fomented in cycling in Mexico, for example, with the famous races "to supposedly gain experience," "diaper category," is part of another gap that denounces the Hungarian scientist. The race system is developed to "show up" champions and not as the process of athlete development. A child should not compete more than three to four times per year if his or her formation is considered a priority. Javier competed three times in 2004 — two nationals in Valle de Bravo and Veracruz, and a third one in Ontario Canada.

Detecting talents participates from the same parody of the "discovery of America," which the Mexican historian Eduardo O’Gorman answered with the interesting concept of the "invention of America." To invent our future young is for me an exciting feat. It requires time and patience in forming the fundamental as Balyi raises ("fun," in English, which does not have anything to do with lack of structure and rules). Adding, poor bases or mediocre foundations create poor men or mediocre elite programs, a reality within our Mexican sport. The best programs, he says, with the facilities and the money, will not be able to remedy mediocre "damaged" athletes from early age; although we should not forget that many of our most successful athletes arrive in spite of the system.

To gain the National Junior Championship in triathlon or any of the sports has never been a bridge for an international success in Mexico, and even less a process of identification and development of talents. On the contrary, it emphasizes the gaps mentioned by Balyi, particularly in swimming and track and field. Javier and Ruth’s paths in this long journey emphasize a TEAM WORK, and simultaneously their success is a normal step within their formation. The long journey has just begun. Those results also emphasize the grandfather and his daughter’s unique histories, and the courage of these siblings not scared of being different within their culture. Our future depends on new inventions outside of the institutional Sport frameset. Ironically and contrary to Cristobal Columbus, we do not have "to discover." Remembering O’Gorman, we have the valuable mission to invent and reach the "physical literacy" (Balyi).