Foreign children accomplish great athletic feats. Yasmine El-Rashidi wonders why Egyptians of the same age don't usually do the same
Childhood and activity go hand in hand. As children we run, and skip, and run some more, and it seems to adult onlookers that the concept of "out of breath" and the need to rest never quite hit home. That, at least, is how it should be.
When one takes the time to peer at the pitches and courts and fields that make up Egypt's sports clubs and schools, reality strikes. Children eight and seven and even as young as five are dragging their little feet across court.
"Come on" coaches call. "Go," they urge.
When one assesses the request, the coaches are not asking for too much. One lap around a 400 metre track, one 50 metre sprint, a two-minute drill on a tennis court. For a child, it is far from too much.
"Kids have an abundance of energy," says Beverly Cole, a physical education teacher and specialist who has worked at several language schools in Egypt and around the Middle East. "They're not like us," she laughs. "They're still not conditioned to reach that point when they can't push themselves anymore. They just go, go, go."
The cause, though, of the slackened paces and disheartened faces here stems not from a drained younger population but rather from a pool of coaches that do not quite want to be there.
"The problem here is that coaches aren't rewarded as professionals," says Gail Young, a physical education teacher who now gives private fitness sessions to young athletes. "They aren't respected in their fields. The sports industry isn't really seen as a career. They aren't given incentive to maximise and optimise their output."
That reality spans the nation's various sports-related arenas.
"My family doesn't look at what I do as a career," says Monem Ali, a personal trainer at a small downtown gym. "It's not really something to be proud of. Anywhere else in the world I would be making good money out of personal training. Here it's like minimum wage."
A personal trainer makes an average LE15-20 per session (upscale gym's reach LE50, a tennis/squash coach LE30-40, upscale reaching LE100-150), and a private trainer at a sports club LE60.
"If you're lucky, you have an outlet to give private training sessions, you have wealthier clients and you make good money. Otherwise, it's a struggle."
It's a struggle for the trainers and it becomes a struggle for the children, too.
"What you see as a parent is disheartening," says Yasmine Murad, mother of Shereen, nine, and Youssef, five. "My children play tennis and football at the club," she continues. "The coaches have no interest whatsoever in the future of these children or in their safety. But the other alternative to these coaches is to pay LE150 per hour."
The passion, Murad says, is simply not there. "If you don't love what you do, there's no way you can inspire others towards it too. Coaches should be role models. Children should look up to them. The trainers here don't realise what an impact they can have on these young children's lives. We all need role models. We all need idols. That's how our first dreams are formed."
The local sports fields, unfortunately, provide little of the sort. On one stretch of tennis courts at a local sporting club, that reality is clear. Despite its status as one of the more expensive sports to pursue -- and hence higher-earning trainers -- the lacklustre spirit on the part of the coaches is evident.
"Come on," shouts Sobhi to a lanky eight-year-old. "Come on," he says again.
Sobhi is hitting balls to his young protégé: right to left, left to right. The boy drags himself across the court, seemingly not lifting his feet from the red clay beneath him.
"Come on, move!" Sobhi shouts again. His tone is monotone. Sobhi may be crying out to his student to move, but in actuality, his head is turned the other way.
"I see this a lot," Murad says. "The trainers aren't really there," she continues. "Their heads are somewhere else."
In a way Egyptian coaches cannot be blamed too much given the hardships, but seen another way, they need to be made aware of just how great their impact can be.
"That kind of relationship can be profound," says Young. "Trainers need to be made aware of what kind of influence they have, and they need to assume responsibility for that. If they put energy into what they do, the children will respond accordingly," she continues. "It's no wonder children are dragging themselves around the courts and tracks. They are not given that drive to succeed and work their hardest. That is something they pick up from coaches."
The example before them, instead, is one of a deflated drive. The result goes beyond the mere creation of young children who are not motivated to excel in sports.
"Except for the private schools, PE and sports are not given the space and importance and creativity they deserve," Young says. "Activity is critical. If you look around the streets around two o'clock when the schools are out, what you see is sad and scary."
What you see, she explains, is a sizable percentage of obese young children, snacking on chipsy and chocolate. "The chipsy and chocolate wouldn't be so bad if these kids were moving more," she says. "But even in their PE classes, they're not."
The key, Young and others alike agree, is a campaign.
"Raising awareness on activity and its importance," Cole begins. "That's what the country needs. The educational system needs to be revamped in order to include a well thought-out, well-planned, PE and activity programme for youngsters. Standing in a line doing jumping jacks in like some military camp is absolutely inadequate," she continues. "The thing teachers and coaches here don't realise is that activity is not only of benefit to the body, but also hugely to the mind. If these coaches would take a child and give them everything they have, they could mould an international champion." She pauses.
"If they could see that, and see the impact they could have on a child's life, then they would start to see the results they want," she says. "If they could see that, and apply it, and have a bit of patience, they could push a child into the global professional circuit in their chosen sport. Then," she laughs, "they [coaches] would be making millions!"
The other option is to continue as is, not make their money, and not change a life.
"Like everything it's a risk," Cole says. "You could invest time and energy into a potential star and then they quit," she continues. "But for anyone working in the field it shouldn't just be about nurturing a star."
Recent studies show that obesity in children and teenagers is the number one factor in low self-esteem, causing the most severe cases of depression amongst youngsters.
The solution to the problem is "fun". Across the United States and Europe, "Get active" campaigns are being put into play -- integrating at least 30 minutes of fun, moderate intensity exercise, into the regular school day. The campaign not only aims to educate children but also adults -- parents, teachers and coaches -- on the immense responsibility they have when it comes to activity and young people's lives.
"It's no longer a matter of sports achievement," Cole says. Rather, she points out, research shows that it is now a matter of lives.