Identifying sporting talent at school is key to UAE’s future success

Experts say a talent identification system, links between schools and local sports clubs and experienced coaches are important if the country wants to develop champions in various sports.

Sports scientist Khaled Dougman says Abu Dhabi’s sports system needs the support of schools and clubs to succeed. Vidhyaa for The National
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ABU DHABI // The Abu Dhabi Sports Council is drafting a system to better identify and train young talent.

Khaled Dougman, a PhD in sports science, has spent the past 20 years researching sport and hopes to help advance the emirate’s sporting potential.

Many countries such as the UK, Australia and South Africa have different pathways for talent to get from school sports to local sports clubs, but the UAE has so far fallen behind.

“Here we’ve tried to find out what the best way is to find athletes,” said Dr Dougman. “We’ve got all the facilities and potential here but where are the athletes? It’s not just about finding them but also supporting them and taking them to a competitive level.”

Talent identification is not just about children already playing a sport but trying to spot those with the motor skills, coordination and psychology to take them into and keep them at a competitive level.

“It’s not about finding the youth who are already winning but those with the potential,” said Dr Dougman.

He said the system was at the research stage and could not be done without the support of schools and sports clubs, with schools the first ports of call.

Although there are pathways for young boys in football, the structure is lacking in other sports, said Dr Dougman. Encouraging children into culturally relevant sports such as swimming, horse riding and shooting – all referred to in Islamic literature – would be a good place to start.

Former Olympic gymnast Cristian Brezeanu, who won two silver medals at the Commonwealth Games during his career, said that schools were a vital part of the process of talent identification.

“It’s where the selection process happens, so it’s important to have people there who are qualified enough to identify what kids are good for what particular sports,” he said.

Dr Dougman agreed. “Schools have to play a direct role. There’s no way to ignore schools. It’s where kids spend most of their time. Even if the parents are lazy or unhealthy, we have the chance to educate and inspire kids at school.”

Brezeanu, who competed for South Africa and now works as a coach in Dubai, said: “You need the right pathways for the talent to be utilised so there must be networks between clubs, the right facilities, and most of all, elite-level coaches.”

Australia, he said, had a successful system, where 10 regions had academies and children are processed up to the national-level academies, in a system he would like to see implemented here. Academies blend school with the long hours of training so education does not suffer.

“However, with 30 Olympic sports, it’s very hard to do this so you must first focus on the key sports to begin with,” said Brezeanu.

Despite the challenges faced, the UAE has achieved some Olympics success. Ahmed Al Maktoum won a gold medal in shooting at Athens 2004 and this year, the country had 13 athletes competing in six sports in Rio, with Sergiu Toma winning bronze in the men’s judo.

DuRandt Gerber, 34, played professional rugby in South Africa until two years ago. Now working for the Dubai Exiles, he said a lack of funding and a lack of qualified coaches was holding back the development of talented youth.

Gerber began playing at age 4 and even in school he said his coaches were former professionals.

“For rugby to grow at grassroots level here, the federation needs to give money, get people qualified and get the coaches at the clubs,” he said.

Former tennis professional Marc Massad, who established the multi-activity centre New York Sports Services in Dubai, said: “For this talent to be discovered and nurtured, there must be a system linking clubs, schools and the relevant authorities and even the Ministry of Health.”