There are presently 188 nation members of the International Weightlifting Federation spread across the entire globe from the tiny populations of Pacific Islands to the might of China, reputed to have a population of weightlifters in the hundreds of thousands. In some nations there are great legacies of state sponsored sporting systems that, for decades, have produced results in Weightlifting that we continue to marvel, while in other nations results are achieved through the largely unaided effort of individual coaches and athletes.
Where does your nation stand in the global pecking order of weightlifting nations? Do you have grounds for hope that weightlifters in your nation are making headway on the international stage, or do you come from one of the many nations permitted just one male and one female participant at the Olympic Games? How can a weightlifting nation move from being among the inconsequential into to the big league? Is this possible and is it really worth the effort?
Achieving such a change in international status is a “tough ask” for any sports administrator and perhaps many would settle for building domestic participation and let go ambitions of closing the gap with the major nations.
But is there a way? Is it possible to build a system that produces excellence in weightlifting without the need for high levels of government funding? What would be the main ingredients of such a system?
Here is one vision of a system to change the fortunes of weightlifting, if you have need of ideas.
The key ingredients for success might be:
- A unity of purpose
- A culture of collaboration and learning
- Promoting weightlifting as a life changing process
- Creating inspiring places
Unity of Purpose
This ingredient comes first. If among coaches, athletes, administrators and officials there is a lack unity then development of the sport will fail. But the sense of unity does not have to come from the top down. Sport administrators are often steeped in politics, hamstrung by budgets and imbued with unhelpful historical baggage. Instead, it is from within the ranks of ordinary coaches that the sense of unity must come. Operating at the coal face, coaches have common hopes, desires, problems and issues as they help others experience the learning and personal development that weightlifting affords. While there should always be friendly rivalry between coaches, there must also be a sense of working for a higher cause and a belief in a shared destiny. Coaches can spread the unity of purpose to their athletes by fostering the appreciation of the sport as a vehicle of self-discovery and by advocating the respect of all who participate in the sport. The unity of purpose is that the sport of weightlifting comes first, before self-interest, before inter-state rivalry and before the politics of power. If you feel that this is not the case, then you must leave the sport of weightlifting.
A culture of collaboration and learning
Any starting athlete or coach has an immense task of learning ahead of them, although they may not know it. As the author of this article, I have spent 40 years in weightlifting and I am learning more now than I ever did, and this is a great joy. Although most nations of the world will have some system of coach education and accreditation, in truth it can never be enough to provide for the needs of coaches. If coaches operate in silos, then they do not benefit, their nation does not benefit and the sport of weightlifting does not benefit from the collective pool of knowledge.
For the sport to go forward, a culture of collaboration and learning must be established. There must be strong lines of communication and continual dialog between coaches in different geographic regions, different levels of knowledge and different perspectives. Without such sharing of knowledge, neither the sport of weightlifting nor its participants can move forwards.
This culture of collaboration and learning must begin at the grass roots level. Coaches, who are passionate about their sport, will value learning greatly and will pass this on to the next generation of coaches and athletes.
But there is also a responsibility of national bodies to recognise and foster learning. It should not just be the case that coach education programs merely accredit coaches for legal and insurance purposes. Systems that provide education should be under continuous improvement processes and provide learning materials that underpin the grass roots collaboration of coaches.
Promoting Weightlifting as a Life Changing Process
Yes, ultimately, devotees of weightlifting will want to see their nation do well at Olympic and other major world or regional events. But for too long, we have attempted to sell our sport on the basis that it is an Olympic Sport and that, somehow, this would make it more appealing to our followers and the wider community to pursue. What is needed is to promote the sport as a healthy, challenging and deeply satisfying experience, and that this applies no matter who you are or what your talents may be. Engaging in the sport of weightlifting is a worthwhile journey of self-discovery, and that you will emerge a more confident, more understanding individual.
On this basis, we can sell the sport to all segments of the community and retain participants for many years longer than we presently do. In particular, we need children in their teen years and therefore we must portray the benefits of involvement in a language that parents understand such as good values, personal growth and development, health and happiness, love of learning and respect for hard work and achievement.
Creating Inspiring Places
For more than half a century, marketers have extolled the virtues of the “4 P’s” of the marketing mix (Product, Price, Place, Promotion). “Place” is therefore considered to be a very important part of the whole equation. Place is not, however, just a matter of the physical elements of space, equipment and facilities, although this is very important. Place also includes the social environment that supports athletes, the culture of discipline and personal achievement, the inter-personal qualities of the coach, the ethical framework imposed on the athlete and the coach and the perceived value of being a part of the place. Walking into a weightlifting place, one can be inspired by the friendliness and willingness of people to give you personal assistance and to make you feel part of the group. One can be inspired by the dedication of others around you, by the ethos and values of the group and by symbols and rituals of the sport as a whole.
In reality, continuing to be an Olympic Sport does have value, but this advantage comes to no avail if would-be participants fail to be inspired when they walk in the door of the training room.
From time to time, devotees of the sport of weightlifting are bound to reflect on the fortunes of their athletes in major international competitions such as the Olympic Games and World Championships. They will question whether there are grounds for any hope that their own nation can produce athletes capable of ranking in the top ten in a world event. There will be thoughts that such a proposition is only possible in nations that invest large sums of government sponsorship of weightlifting. Furthermore, there will be concerns that the systems for talent identification, professionalization of athletes and employment of full time coaches cannot be matched in democratic countries, where the expenditure of taxes must be justified.
This article urges that we should avoid being negative and outwardly portraying our situation as hopeless. Instead there is plenty that we can do to build a system that will recruit and nurture athletes and coaches, and to enjoy greater success than we have previously experienced. Without any shadow of doubt, the ongoing education of coaches is a top priority. However, centralised systems operated by national sport bodies can be slow to respond to the needs of coaches, and simply do not contain sufficient information.
The way we promote the sport of weightlifting, focussed on results and possession of genetic talent, does nothing to stimulate participation, not even from those who possess talent. Clearly, at the grass roots level, the level where change can only occur, all of us need to realise that participation in our sport could and should be a deeply satisfying experience irrespective of results. We need to develop and promulgate a new culture.