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School of Sport: Availability is the best ability

It is sadly not uncommon that we hear sportsmen and women announce their retirement from the international stage.

It is sadly not uncommon that we hear sportsmen and women announce their retirement from the international stage.

They carry on playing at club or provincial level but declare that they will no longer be available for national selection; usually it is accompanied with the explanation that they have made the decision so that they can play longer at club level — after all, it is the club that is paying their salary (usually a very large sum, it just so happens…) and so they must look after their own interests. Maybe they might claim that in doing so they are being very honourable and giving others the chance to represent their country! However, no-one is going to buy that.

Playing for our country is an incredible honour; we are selected on our ability (primarily, but also our attitude) so in effect it is not a matter of us picking and choosing whether we do or not.

We are selected; we are called up. Generations who have fought for their country in war would not have received much sympathy from anyone if they announced that they actually were no longer available for selection to fight for the country, thank you very much.

If selected, we go; if not selected, we try harder. Who are we to turn down national service? Sadly, though, we do not see playing sport for our country as service – only kudos.

There is some debate as to who actually first stated that “Availability is the best ability” (some say Brian Dawkins, others say Bill Parcells, both highly successful American football coaches) but who actually said it is perhaps not important. However, the point they both make is valid, instructive and crucial, not just in sport but also in life, business or religion (“Here I am; send me!”), as many have regularly pointed out. Availability is an essential initial ability; without it, other ability is worthless.

Coaches will usually be looking at their players’ ability to kick, run, pass, tackle, pass, hit, throw; those are all important abilities, integral to the particular sport. However, coaches, and school coaches, would do better by looking first of all at availability.

We want players to be available to receive the ball at any time. We want players to be available to take a crucial penalty if called upon. We want players to be available to volunteer.

We want players to be available to step onto the field at any stage of a match but at the same time remain equally available to support those on the field by being on the bench or even in the stands, if that is what it will take for the team to play well.

We want players to be available to play in any position, if it means playing for and helping the team.

One youngster started playing hockey at the age of eight and was put on the left wing.

Each year that followed, when the next coach enquired where he played, he ended up playing left wing, through junior and senior school.

When he played for a club in a Gap Year, he played left wing; when he went to university, he joined the hockey club and played left wing, as that is what everyone said was his position. In his second year at university, he was captain and decided to play in midfield (the captain is the selector, after all!) but one weekend they had no centre-back available so he volunteered to play there.

It happened that the national universities’ selector was an umpire for that match and after the game he asked the player to come to the national universities’ trial the following week, where he was told to play sweeper.

He was happy to do so, even though he had played left wing for over ten years, and never once played as sweeper.

His availability served him well as not only was he selected for the national universities team but within six months he was also selected for the national Under 21 side and then the full national team – as sweeper.

This writer later had the privilege of playing for his country thirty-five times before leaving the country to come and work in Zimbabwe at the age of twenty-seven.

However, he never ‘retired’ or announced his retirement – he simply went overseas and is actually still available for selection, though obviously the likelihood of being selected now, so many years later, is nil! If the country had selected him (and paid the airfare to return) to continue playing he would have been very happy to do so but as an amateur sport that would have been unlikely.

Whatever happens, availability is a key attribute. Some coaches and managers consider reliability is the best ability but it only follows on from availability.

And availability is founded in responsibility, each player being responsible for themselves and the team. Have your kit ready — you never know…!


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