The secret of south’s success

Proud parents Raewyn and Alan Strong with son Corbin (18), who last week was Southland's last sporting champion to return home to Invercargill after he won gold at the World Junior Track Cycling Championships in Switzerland.

SOUTHLAND excels in sport, that has already been well documented.

Sprinkle some powder over almost all of that Southland sporting success and you’ll find Jason McKenzie’s fingerprints.

McKenzie won’t like this being about him, but there isn’t another person in a better position to analyse the province’s sporting triumph during the past decade or so.

McKenzie wears many different sporting hats, but he is best known for his role of Academy Southland programme manager.

The programme was born in 2004 when officials took tentative steps into the world of talent development in Southland.

In 2006, McKenzie linked with the programme and bit by bit it has evolved.

Jason McKenzie

In short, the programme helps provide athletes with a stepping stone from community sport to the elite ranks.

The programme provides talented Southland athletes with advice and assistance around areas such as strength and conditioning, nutrition, and mental skills.

Using medals and championships as the key measurement, it is hard to provide a counter-argument against the benefit of having Academy Southland in place.

Since its inception, the programme has helped produce seven Olympians and 21 Commonwealth Games athletes.

That, of course, is just scratching the surface in terms of success stories.

When Southlanders eventually move into elite programmes they are often provided information which they are already familiar with, because of that time with Academy Southland.

So just how has Southland been able to provide athletes with an obvious head start over young athletes from other regions?

The easy answer is funding.

The Community Trust of Southland and and Invercargill Licensing Trust, along with commercial partners, ensure the programme can operate to the level it does. Not to mention the funding allocated which provides Southland with the top-notch facilities it has.

McKenzie – who doubles as an ILT Foundation board member – acknowledges that financial backing from the community puts Southland sport in a much better position than many other provinces.

But he stresses it would be wrong to think you can just throw money at something and results will follow.

He pointed to the people attached to various sporting organisations as probably the most valuable asset, when it came to getting the facilities built and fostering success.

“If you go to a school or a club and if it is successful there will be a passionate, skilled person that is driving that and making that happen. Southland has always had those people. I don’t think we look after those special people enough,” McKenzie says.

The question is, would these star Southland athletes have made it to the very top without Academy Southland in place?

McKenzie shrugs his shoulders in response to that line of questioning.

He does not know the answer to that, but he knows the programme provides Southlanders with an advantage, and that should be valued.

After a dozen or so years helping plot countless Southland athletes’ rise to the top, McKenzie now has firm thoughts on the formula required for an individual to reach their sporting pinnacle.

“You’ve got to have some talent. You’ve also got to love what you do. We’ve seen a lot of kids who have got heaps of talent but don’t really love it. They are the really early developers that don’t stay on because they are not really passionate about it. The third piece is the work ethic.

“They are the three ingredients, and if you put them together with a coach, or somebody who has got the same passion, that’s what we see in the [leading] ones.”

McKenzie said funders should mark the Academy Southland programme on the number of medals and titles achieved.

However, he felt for the individuals involved, the programme now was more than just standing on a podium.

“When I first started this job I was all about the athlete being the best athlete they could be. Wow, did I get that wrong.

“Yes it’s about being that, but it’s about balancing that with developing you as a person. Because [sport] is not always going to be there.

“The risk with our sportspeople now is if they have a bad performance they are viewed as a failure. It’s cruel. It’s a tough world being judged like that.”

Southland sport is in good heart generally, as week by week another success story emerges.

But McKenzie believes there needs to now be a focus on ensuring the Southland sports model is sustainable.

“The piece that worries me is we have got so many sports and people wanting to expand and do new things, capture new people, and tick off numbers in terms of participation.

“Yet, actually we’ve got the same kids doing lots of things. Which is awesome, but it is also a risk.

“Because sports that used to go for 10, 11, 12 weeks are now becoming 25-30 week sports.

“That’s what I mean by the sustainability of the system. We don’t want to burn these kids out when they are 14 or 15. Everyone wants a piece of them, that is the challenge.”

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