“If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream, it you can become it”
William Arthur Ward
British Performance at the Rio Olympics
Whatever our personal feelings as to the importance of sport and the Olympics, it would be difficult not to be touched by the pride the UK has in its Olympians and their achievements. When we reflect on the past years of British sporting achievement, and see that we were ranked second in the medal tables in 2016, we know clearly something fundamental has changed in UK sport.
And yes, we are aware of the cynics that say it is down to the vast amount of money spent on the elite athletes. Nonetheless, even to me, who’s only sporting accolade was to captain the first eight shooting team, it’s obvious that British Olympic sport went through a fundamental rethink – there could be no quick wins, (no pun intended) to this solution.
It required a long term and clearly defined strategy to build a formula for success that addressed the demands of modern athletics. This shift required a sustainable platform for athletes of all disciplines to develop their sporting prowess, in the UK and abroad.
Rome was not built in a day we are told, and this approach to Olympic glory is built on long term embedded foundations. To analyse the process in detail is not for this blog but there are key points that underpin the changes and resulting success.
How to Create a Winning Formula
First, there was an agreed need for change and a commitment to the goal. Then, the creation of a group of coaches/mentors that understood the requirements of winning and were able to support the athletes, through their knowledge and expertise. This had to be supported by an ongoing funding stream, which would effectively resource the process to achieve world class performance.
And then, last but far from least, we come to the athletes themselves. What are their qualities and attributes? The interviews in Rio displayed a very focused approach, underpinned by a deep commitment to training, personal sacrifice and dietary requirements. But perhaps most interesting, they nearly all talk of the events or a person that inspired them to the abiding urge to become a champion. This inspiration has often been from a coach or teacher. In the case of Mo Farar his former PE teacher, Alan Watkinson. These role models play an important part in the athlete’s mindset, whether it’s a desire to emulate them or, in some cases, better their achievements.
The Importance of a Mentor
It is clear this role model/mentor performs a vital ingredient in the development and conviction of modern athletes. The other key feature which struck me was how the athletes in general relished being part of a team, whether this be the coaches, mentors or other athletes. Max Whitlock commented that training tips and exercises are discussed openly to share ideas and information, which no doubt drives improvement and progression in an athlete’s performance. I found myself looking at the parallels in industry or at school, where a group’s discussion and problem solving ultimately improve and optimise the projects they are tasked with.
This is not alchemy but common sense, but the outcome could be pure gold.
A Winning Formula for Education?
The next question is; how do we use this approach in education? There are some clues here that we could relate to the education of pupils in science and technology or STEM subjects. If we look at our UK schools’ performances in the league tables on science and technology, the position would look as equally woeful as our performance over a decade ago in the Olympic medal tables – this article from the Guardian illustrates this.
It’s not just about national pride either! It is logical to assume that investment in education and young people is linked with economic growth and development. Furthermore, research suggests the younger we become involved in these subjects, the more likely we are to be committed to pursuing them into higher education.
As with sporting prowess and our performance at the Olympics, we have a similar challenge in developing skills in young people to achieve high standards and be committed to science based subjects. Put simply, there is not sufficient encouragement exposure, resources and expertise to deliver a meaningful and engaging experience. So, like the Governing bodies of the athletes, let’s acknowledge the problem and accept the challenge through a complete rethink.
How do we create better skills in these areas? Back to Rome, this cannot be achieved in a day. We need commitment from the government to a strategy that is sustainable and sufficiently funded, aimed at providing innovation in the classroom and producing a committed and skilled workforce for the future.
Now, for the coaches (teachers). They need to be well trained and committed to the task, with the ability to provide industry knowledge and skills to support the development of pupils into world class performers in STEM subjects.
And what about those role models that proved so important and inspirational to so many athletes? Accepting that people like Professor Brian Cox, Tim Peake et Al engage and enthuse pupils and make science more accessible. In this modern age of media frenzy and celebrity focus, it can be difficult for young people to find inspirational people in science, technology or other important academic areas. Without exposure, brilliant scientific and engineering achievements are buried away, without the public recognition and acclaim they rightly deserve. This needs to change.
We Need Fundamental Change
The time needs to come when young people can witness and see scientists and technologists being rewarded and seen as highly valued members of society. Then, I would ask, how could young people not want to be part of this elite team of innovators and engineers. Perhaps my wishes in this respect are dreams. However, to many, Great Britain’s medal achievements in the Olympics were but a dream a few years ago.
Is it not worth making that fundamental change? Creating tomorrow’s winners in our society, that can change the world and produce so much more than gold medals? For me, the UK Olympic journey has proved that if we desire change and take the opportunity, supported with a strategy, commitment and the necessary resources, we can be a significant player in science, technology and engineering. Then, we can be equally proud of our achievements as the Olympians of 2016.