What future for Maltese sport and physical activity? – Matthew Muscat Inglott

On February 23rd and 24th, the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST) hosted a symposium to ask a simple question: What legacy will result from Malta hosting two major sporting events later this year, namely the Games for the Small States of Europe (GSSE) and the UEFA Under-19 Football Championship?

Sports administrators, coaches, athletes, parents, sports and fitness professionals, health professionals, physical education teachers, sports journalists, entrepreneurs and politicians attended the symposium as speakers, panelists and listeners.

Presentations were made on educational initiatives currently being implemented at the UEFA Academy; general approaches to sports development in Luxembourg; SportMalta and its ongoing programmes; Research results and various statistics from the local scene; the 2022 Commonwealth Games and their legacy for Birmingham; and a new forthcoming legal framework to improve regulation of the local sport, exercise and fitness sector; among other topics.

The panel discussions stimulated many discussions. Why are we still underperforming in international sport, even compared to other small nations? Why are we among the most inactive people in Europe? Many claim to have the answers, so why hasn’t the situation improved?

Panellists from the major Maltese national governing bodies compared and contrasted their situations, but largely agreed that difficulties in prevailing against most foreign competitors were universal. Statistics on general physical activity (PA) are similarly uninspiring. So what was different about the possible solutions offered at this last symposium?

A new legal framework for tighter regulation of professional standards appears promising, as does an apparent commitment to creating new knowledge through applied research.

The special issue of the MCAST Journal of Applied Research and Practice for Sport, Exercise and Health, which was first published at the end of last year, was presented. As recognized throughout the symposium, the issue is not the availability of qualified personnel on the islands, but how they are deployed.

For example, the magazine aims to inspire local sports scientists and academics to give much-needed attention to local issues. Rather than tailoring their work to what editors of international scientific and academic journals deem relevant, a permanent local platform can help encourage our local experts to address unique locally contextualized issues and report on their findings that are relevant to Maltese stakeholders are most important.

It is hoped that graduates of MCAST’s new Master’s program in Exercise Science, trained in experimental design and statistical analysis of data, will take on this mantle and drive progress through applied research and subsequent evidence-based practice.

For example, we know from recent studies that there is a link between perceived corruption (according to the Index maintained by Transparency International) and international sport performance, particularly in small nations. This result allows for the prioritization of initiatives specifically designed to increase transparency, openness and trust in the governance of local sport and PA organisations. This is a clear example of the practical application of applied research.

We now know from recent studies that there is a link between perceived corruption and international sporting performance, particularly in small nations

The data also suggest that there is an association between socioeconomic status and the level of participation in organized sport. If nothing changes, we risk that quality sports eventually become the sole domain of children whose parents can afford the privilege.

Malta’s population and potential talent pool are already small enough without further reducing the numbers unnecessarily. Socioeconomic status was a recurring theme throughout the event. While some athletes have challenged the status quo and made exceptions to the rule at international level, parental involvement has been a strikingly central factor. What happens to highly talented athletes whose parents can’t or won’t support them financially or in any other important way?

The importance of integrative practice in sport was well underscored by a panel discussion on the Special Olympics movement in Malta. Sport and leisure offer sufficient benefits in and of themselves without imposing additional questionable claims of utility on them.

The philosophy of education typically distinguishes between education as a route to work or as a means of development in the broader personal, social, and cultural sense. On the one hand, education should be practical and equip learners to survive and thrive in the real world. It makes perfect sense if the existing system can really do everything.

Learners trained to work strictly within the confines of a system are unlikely to go out and change it. Sport education in Malta remains unrestricted in this sense, according to the panellists on sport-related continuing education and higher education. Passion for sports has been seen as a valid motivation for studying sports, exercise and PA, especially as such passion seems to be so in short supply otherwise locally.

Similarly, the lack of priority or value given to physical education in schools has been a common concern, although care should be taken not to confuse physical education with sport. While exercise is a theme among other things, increasing PA simply means being more active.

Physical education classes aren’t the only opportunity children should be given to exercise, learn through activities and games, or get outside. Nevertheless, there are pilot projects to take up the election promise of more sport in schools and they appear promising. When school children go home, they are exposed to different influences in terms of healthy living.

Government schools can be the ‘great balance’ for most Maltese children, helping them meet the minimum recommended guidelines for PA at school, whatever the existing home environment, and hopefully a lifelong commitment to leading a healthier and more active life procreation in their own family homes initiate future.

Jude Zammit, Director General for Curriculum, Lifelong Learning and Employability at the Department for Education and Sport, and Graham Bencini, Shadow Minister for Sport concluded the symposium with a concluding debate.

Whilst sport and PA has been recognized as one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement, we call on our leaders to support genuine initiatives aimed at cultural change in the way sport and PA are valued in Maltese society in order to leverage local expertise to maximize and respond to the theory and science currently serving to rejuvenate attitudes and assumptions surrounding Maltese sport and the PA.

Matthew Muscat Inglott is a Senior Instructor at MCAST’s Institute of Community Services.

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