Thursday, February 17, 2011

Grass-Roots vs. High Performance

(The real title should be: Grass-Roots vs. High Performance in Badminton)

Yup, this is a pretty touchy subject but I have gone through this process before, written exam questions based on this subject, and of course, I am offering my own opinion. As we are all entitled to it, I don't actually offer a solution, but I would advocate that it is to the utmost necessity that we have BOTH. In terms of making metaphors and analogies to explain, I could almost say we have a Science vs. Religion debate. I believe in both as well, as it is difficult to solely choose one. If we can use them together, then maybe we can reap the most benefit because where one may fail in a certain situation, the other can come in for support and vice versa. Let's begin:

Let's define both concepts, as a clear definition of each is rather important. Grass-roots would more or less involve getting people involved with the sport, just getting in more numbers at any age and any skill level. Usually though, we would refer to grass-roots as getting more young kids to play with the theory that by having a large pool of players to choose from, eventually you can produce some higher level players. I will refer to the grass-roots model as the 'Bottom-Up' model. With high performance, it's pretty much a no-brainer: the definition is pretty much in the term itself. High performance would mean the top athletes in each discipline representing the country at International events. We will call high performance the 'Top-Down' model. Now, as for countries, let's use Canada because I see this topic come up time and time again. Badminton in Canada is probably not so great, but looking at the whole Pan American continent, we are probably better off than a lot of other countries. Though our support system is limited, I might even say we are better off than USA Badminton, in terms of government support. As little funding as we may get, little funding is better than no funding. However, there is a lot more potential corporate sponsorship in the US, so I consider the two countries more or less even. But anyway, let's talk about Canada.

The biggest problem we must understand about Canada is geography. We are split up into provinces and territories and are probably the size of Europe. That would mean traveling between provinces would be like traveling between countries in Europe. However, in this huge geographical area, there are only a fraction of all the people living in Europe. Since the population of Canada is rather small, we are very spread out and traveling gets very costly, even traveling within our own country. There are a lot of other problems I could relate to the geographical size: cell phone reception, internet connectivity, carbon emmisions, and even health care. Perhaps the health care system is so bad because we have one hospital supporting a large area of people and getting around the area takes longer because we are more spread out? Sounds like a reasonable concept. Maybe there are less hospitals because there are less people? Hmmm, I think I'm on to something. Regardless, this is something that we can't control, unless we start populating the country... though we may not even have a positive growth rate. Okay, enough background stuff, let's get to the main topic of this article.

I don't really know how to start, but in my Grade 12 English class, they said to use your topic sentence in the intro. My intro has been long enough, so here's my main point: Grass-roots and High-Performance operate in a cycle. Both can lead to the other, but neither can truly function by itself. It seems like I'm just rambling that both answers are true, but I hope to clarify that shortly. We will start with the 'Top-Down' model and look at High Performance first. First off, we will look at the current level of high-performance in Canada. Even though I am a part of this group, compared to the rest of the World, we are a long ways behind. As much as we are trying, and believe me we are doing the best we can,  at the end of the day, we are still significantly behind. We do lack funding and that in itself presents another problem as some athletes need to work on the side to make money to train and travel and compete for the country. This time is significant, because if we look at opportunity cost, time used to work can be used for training, or rehab, or whatever other countries do with that extra time and energy because they have adequate funding. Economically speaking, you are better off if you have money to pay for a physio for one hour, rather than having to work 4 hours to pay for an hour of physio. The person with the funding would only need one hour, whereas the Canadian (let's say) requires 5 hours. So how would we get more funding? Well, in Canada, they like to fund those who perform well, as it's the most cost effective way. It's unfortunate, but it's true: if getting a gold medal was a way to get the job done, wouldn't you pay someone with the greatest chance to get the job done? Right, of course you would and so would Canada, so in terms of Canadian players getting the job done... well, let's just put it this way: would you bet on us to win a Super Series tournament? Yeah, I thought you wouldn't.

Now that we established the futility of High-Performance, which a lot of people seemingly are aware of, the default solution would be to put everything into grass-roots; if it's not 'Top-Down' it must be 'Bottom-Up', or we have 2 choices, if it's not A, it MUST be B. Logically speaking, that's very true, but let's take a minute to highlight this lateral thinking puzzle I read somewhere. I will paraphrase it:

"A man and his daughter owe a significant amount of money to their landlord. One day, the landlord approached the man and told him that he would wave the debt if he would allow his daughter to marry him. Both the man and his daughter were mortified by the proposal and refused. So, to make things interesting, the landlord offered to make a game out of it. He said that he would pick out two stones by the river, one white and one black, and if the daughter chose the white stone, he would erase their debt and she would not have to marry him. However, if she picked the black one, she would have to marry him.

The man and daughter reluctantly agreed to the challenge and met the landlord at the river. He walked to the river bank and picked out a black stone first, but the daughter noticed that he picked up a second black stone and put it in a little bag. The landlord approached the daughter with the two stones in a little pouch and told her to pick one. What should she do?

Logically, there are a few options, but none of them very good:
a) She refuses to pick a stone, hence her father would be forced to pay the debt.
b) She exposes his treachary, but hence her father would still be forced to pay the debt out of the landlord's anger.
c) She picks a black stone, and hence, she would have to marry him.

So what should she do?

Well, she happened to be quite clever and deduced a new solution. She picked up a stone but didn't allow the landlord to see it. She walked over to the river bed and 'accidentally' dropped it. Since she couldn't figure out where the stone had bounced, she told the landlord to pull out the other stone in the bag, because whatever colour is left, the stone she dropped must have been the other one. Since it was a black stone left in the bag, she must have dropped a white one. The landlord was too embarassed and couldn't expose his own deceit and was forced to let the man and daughter go free and release them of their debt."

So if we look at the problems of High-Performance, it's easy to jump on the 'Grass-roots' bandwagon. We do need to develop more programs and get more people involved, but how? If we put money soley into grass-roots, who can get people interested in the sport? It almost seems like some people believe it like, "There's no hope in High Performance, so we should develop interest and put all the money in grass-roots! Oh by the way Toby, can you do an exhibition at this school for us next week?" Um... so you can pick up an immediate problem here, and although this is not a true story, I hope it will never have to be. Without high performance, there is nothing to look up to, but the biggest problem to me, is that who will get them to that level? At the least, high performance athletes who come back to coach can teach about things they could not do that other players from other countries could, hoping their athletes can take it a little further. But if there's nobody to teach the grass-roots how to play proper badminton, we'd have a lot of people playing badminton, but none of them very well. Then, what happens? Is money THEN going to be put on developing a high-performance player? But how will they be able to get better without adequate sparring or coaching? Why would anybody from World Badminton want to come coach grass-roots? It's not easy coaching people who have no obligation to the game and no future badminton goals. Oddly enough, it almost seems like we've come around in full circle.

Grass-roots and high performance are a cycle, and unfortunately fueling one doesn't help the other, and by not helping the other, it will hurt the original benefactor. The problem is that we don't have the resources to grow both of them at the same time either. Unfortunately I don't have a solution, I could only offer the full scope of the problem itself. It also doesn't help when the ideals of Sport Canada are shoved into this 'Long-Term Athlete Developmet', the infamous LTAD you may hear thrown in conversations every now or then. It goes through about 7 stages of athlete development in getting someone started in a large variety of physical activity, then eventually specializing and become a "Training to Win" athlete. However, the data and research taken to produce this program are loosely based on multiple sports, probably the more successful Canadian ones. I find it difficult to assimilate data from sports that require someone to simply do something faster than someone else, or even team sports with multiple people on the field at the same time. Believe me, you can't just win badminton if you're faster than someone, and you're statistically less important in a team sport. Playing with just a partner is tough, as your partner should account for roughly 50%. If you're on a team of 5, then you're only about 20% each. Even in hockey, where one team may have a 'power play' and is playing 5 on 4, it would be like... 100% to 80%. Even 5 on 3 is 100% to 60%. 2 on 1 in badminton is 100% to 50% so the significance is tremendous if one player is a little 'off' that day. Regardless of the LTAD research, people look at it a little too chronologically. If the athlete isn't at the level we hope them to be, we can immediately go down those levels to try to determine where the athlete should be. However, the LTAD should also be a little more cyclical, instead of finishing off from 'Training to Win', there should be a level to give back to grass-roots to increase the ability of the grass-roots level, that way everything should continually to grow. Even if you may not be able to produce a high level athlete, it would be a good idea to use that athlete to develop a better one if it's possible. High performance needs to give back to grass-roots, and grass-roots needs to support high performance. Maybe that's the best way if everyone could work together. That way, we could possibly cycle our resources around the same way.

Oh wait, my solution would be for Badminton Canada to buy a weekly Lottomax ticket. Then we might be saved if we won the lottery...


  1. Hmmm very insightful post. Love the idea of giving back, but like you said it is very hard. And maybe if you win lottomax then you can support all the high performance athletes :). Or at least the ones that you think have a promising future ha ha

  2. Thanks for the comment! I know it's a struggle, but I wrote this because I feel there are some people out there who only believe in grass-roots. Also, I like a little humor, as it would be quite funny if we spent all our membership money on lottery tickets =P

  3. Awesome post! I enjoyed that read :)
    This problem with badminton in Canada has been in the back of my head for a while now...

    IMHO I think that Badminton Canada is on the right track in that LTPD is a good model to follow; it can produce results in the long term.
    I also believe that it may be a 'solution' of sorts to this grassroots vs. high performance debate, since its supposed to first promote grass-roots and then provide a pathway of sorts to go on to high performance?

    That being said, I agree with what you're saying about the current model not being focused enough on Badminton. I guess it really just comes down to poor funding....wonder how the other countries seem to pull this off :\

    All in all, something must be done if Badminton is going to prosper to greater levels in Canada...