Professor John Brewer from St. Mary’s University (London) is well versed in success. As Head of British Ski and Snowboard he oversaw Great Britain’s transformation from Winter Olympic also-rans to repeat medal winners. The approach of UK Sport was overhauled two decades ago and, across multiple disciplines, the country is now reaping rewards. UAE elite athletes could certainly learn from the UK experience.
Speaking after his keynote address at the 2018 Sport Industry Forum Abu Dhabi, Brewer explained what needs to happen for the UAE to follow a similarly successful sporting path.
As someone from outside of the UAE, what do you think of the sporting landscape here?
I think there are huge opportunities for the UAE both at grassroots level to generate participation in sport and at elite level to see UAE athletes winning medals at world and Olympic level.
I think the discussions at the Sport Industry Forum Abu Dhabi show that there is a huge amount of work that can be done and needs to be done. But that is exciting because if you are doing the work already and not driving participation or winning medals, that would be an issue.
It’s about identifying really clear steps people can take within the country – the sports federations, the athletes themselves – to help enhance performance and very importantly to get more people taking part in sport because of the health benefits that it brings.
It’s not just about winning medals, it’s about doing sport for health and wellbeing, being as good as you possibly can be. And if being as good as you possibly can be means that you progress through a proper system of coaching, of sports science and medicine, and then end up winning medals at the highest level, then that is going to be great for everybody.
What should the first steps towards greater UAE athlete success be?
I think the first step is actually a mental step – it’s a mindset change that is saying ‘we do really want to do this and we are determined to take the necessary steps. And very importantly, that we will do it for a long-term period.’
You’re not going to suddenly get success and change overnight. If you look at the UK situation where we won just one gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, it’s taken 15-20 years to get Team GB up to the level it is now – winning 60 medals at the last Olympics in Rio and at the London 2012 Games.
It takes time. The first step is that mental and cultural change – to recognise that it will take a long-term commitment.
What was the turning point for sport in the UK?
I believe there were two. The first was in 1988 with Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards – a ski jumper of limited ability on the world stage who sprung to fame because of his inability to perform when wearing the British ski jumping suit. Whilst that was a bit of fun and humour at the time, it causes the British authorities, the British Olympic Association, to say ‘hang on a minute, this isn’t what we’re about. We need to be more about success.
The second turning point was our poor performance at the 1996 Summer Olympics which coincided with the advent of the National Lottery – which provided much needed investment and funding in British sport. Up until that time it was only really the big sports – football, rugby and cricket – where there had been money. The more niche sports like hockey, gymnastics and badminton had very little money.
When the Lottery came along they suddenly had that ability to invest. That kicked things off but importantly it was about targeted investment in the sports and individual athletes who had the potential to perform, and win, at the highest level. It was about not accepting mediocrity.
Beyond the National Lottery, has private sector funding helped?
I’ve chaired two sporting governing bodies and in most sports there is always pressure to try to bring in private funding – commercial sponsorship revenue, TV revenue – that will supplement the Lottery funding that is absolutely critical. But in the UK it is very, very hard to do that – particularly for the smaller, less popular sports that don’t get the airtime or the media coverage that the bigger sports do. Despite the Olympic success, our TV tends to be dominated by football. It’s very hard for smaller sports.
When I was chair of British Ski & Snowboard we were fortunate to have a significant amount of private money coming in, simply because we had a benefactor who was a big fan of skiing and had long been involved in the sport and did it from a personal perspective, not a commercial perspective. I think we have to be very aware that while it’s easy to say let’s go out there and get commercial money and TV rights, the reality is much, much harder.
Having core funding from the central government or a source like the National Lottery is the best way of providing that critical money. If you can bring in the extras from commercial work, TV rights and so on then that is good as well.
What has been the role of Elite Performance Centres in the UK’s sporting success?
My wife played hockey for Great Britain in the 1988 Olympics. She would come home from work, do her training and then at the weekends would tend to go and have a training camp in different parts of the country. That was just the way we did things in those days. There was no centralised place they could go on a full-time basis.
What we’ve seen in the UK is that while there isn’t one single centre of excellence, there are now lots of centres of excellence for different sports. Hockey for example would now use Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre. My own university, St Mary’s University in London, is seen as a centre of excellence for endurance running. Mo Farah is one of our former athletes and students who has trained with us and we still see Mo on a regular basis.
I think bringing the athletes together on a full-time basis – when they can live and train together – is absolutely critical and will always transform performance. Importantly, there are great coaches and an infrastructure that of course includes great facilities and also sports medicine, science, rehabilitation and injury treatment. Having it all under one roof is a real way of transforming sport.
What could the UAE do to improve the quality of coaches?
There doesn’t appear to be a structured coach education and development pathway in the UAE at the moment. We have to accept that great coaching will always underpin top athletes so having coaches who can decide the level they want to coach at, develop their ability and their coaching knowledge, and improve coaching is absolutely essential.
It’s not about starting at grassroots level and progressing to an elite level. It’s about finding the area and level of coaching that really suits what you want to do. You can be a great coach at grassroots level and not be a particularly good coach at elite level, and vice versa. What you need is coaches who are absolutely brilliant at what they do, slotting in to different levels of the athlete pathway and essentially having the athlete passed along.
How do you attract those world class coaches?
Having money obviously helps! Clearly nobody is going to leave their home country and go and work somewhere else unless there is an incentive – often financial – for them to go and do that. The Lottery funding in the UK definitely helped the federations in the UK employ great coaches.
What is important is that you need to move away from a culture of continuously looking overseas for your coaches. Even if you bring in a few great overseas coaches there should still be a coach development pathway that works with those great coaches so that they can act as mentors to develop homegrown coaching talent. Growing your own coaching, medicine and administration is really important, too. You don’t always want to be reliant on overseas talent.
How important is it for young athletes to have a varied range of sports?
It’s really important that young people are able to try out a variety of different sports. The top athletes will always be born with a particular talent, a genetic talent that helps them to win a gold medal. Of course you need to underpin that with coaching and work.
But at an early age it’s about allowing them to try different sports and to find out where their talents are best suited and where they can hopefully progress. People can get as much enjoyment out of taking part in recreational sport and just having fun as they can from winning gold medals. It’s important that everyone has the opportunity to be the very best they can be.
How long-term does the plan need to be?
From experience in the UK you are looking at at least eight years for an athlete to be identified and go through a talent development programme and then achieve top level success. That is why, when you are working with sport and funding sport, patience is critical. It’s a long-term process but it’s self-perpetuating. Once you start to get success at the highest level you will encourage more people to come in at the grassroots level because they see their icons, see their heroes and they want to take part in sport themselves.
— مجلس أبوظبي الرياضي (@AbuDhabiSC) April 17, 2018