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Alba Iulia
Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Zambia’s first true-athlete scholarship winner

Feature Lifestyle Zambia’s first true-athlete scholarship winner

When Mark Kakoma, a 10th grade student at Trident College Solwezi, first climbed into a rowing boat, he thought it would just be a bit of fun for him and his friends. A year later, the sport has taken him to competitions around southern Africa, pitted him against world class rowers in his age group, and now brought him a scholarship that will open doors to rowing teams and universities around the world.
Mark is one of a new generation of athletes. As a member of Kansanshi Rowing Club, he is coached with a philosophy quite different from that which has dominated sport in past decades. For a start, Mark has never heard a rowing coach shout. If he’s not on his game, his coaches are more likely to ask him if he slept well, or if everything is alright at home. This more mindful approach is part of a growing trend towards compassionate coaching, and away from harsher and more aggressive methods. This differs quite starkly from the experience most athletes had ten or twenty years ago: the experience that triggered the formation of the True Athlete scholarship in the first place.
The stated vision of the True Athlete project is to create a more compassionate world through sport. Its founder, Sam Parfitt, earned a tennis scholarship to the USA, but endured a career of serious injuries and surgeries, and suffered from a number of mental health disorders by the time he retired. His story is hardly unique.
The world of competitive sport has long had an attitude problem. The recent Netflix documentary “Athlete A” is one example of the abuse often faced by young athletes. In the film, many young girls reveal that they were forced to train and compete with broken bones and torn ligaments. Their coaches used emotional manipulation and aggression to push them beyond their limits: not to mention the other forms of abuse that made headlines and shocked the world. The prevalence of doping in endurance sport, recent stories of soccer star Ronaldinho’s illegal exploits, and a less reported yet pervasive spread of mental and eating disorders among both competing and retired athletes all hint at a sinister force behind the scenes of beautifully illuminated sporting arenas. These examples tell us that change is necessary, and thankfully it is coming.
Sport is uniquely positioned to create change, as children tend to have their first experiences of competition, success, failure, and leadership on the sports fields. Shouting coaches and a win-at-all-costs approach quickly translate into anger, frustration, burn-out, and even doping in young athletes. A quick google search for ‘SA schools rugby doping’ provides ample enlightenment. As athletes succeed and attain global fame, the values and principles they have learned in their developmental years are projected onto an eager audience of young fans. We must ask ourselves what future leaders will be like if in their formative years they idolise athletes who dope, scream in anger, or even just fake injuries for free kicks. It is possible, though, for a young person’s sporting experience to be precisely the opposite of what’s described above.
Mark’s first significant rowing competition was in Zimbabwe, only a few months after he discovered the sport. It didn’t go to plan.
“As I rowed out to the starting line, I felt that something wasn’t right with the boat,” he said. “I noticed a dent in one of the riggers.” A rigger is a metal bar that holds an oar in place. “I started the race, but struggled to keep the boat balanced. The dent continued to grow, and eventually the boat was unrowable. I stopped and put my hand up.”
Mark was pulled out of his boat, and taken back to shore by a race official. He was perhaps disappointed, but the mindful guidance he had received from Kansanshi Rowing Club’s head coach, James Stephenson, had prepared him well.
“I knew this was just one of my early experiences in the sport. I was happy that I had steadied my nerves and started the race. The rest was beyond my control.”
Today, like teenagers all over the world, Mark faces a challenge that he’d never have expected. As he sits at home in Lusaka, the COVID-19 pandemic prevents him from returning to school, and to Kansanshi Rowing Club. “I know that everyone else faces the same challenge,” he says calmly. “I don’t have access to a rowing machine, but I go to the gym to preserve my conditioning. I know that when everything opens up again I’ll have to be on top of my game right away.”
Mark’s level headed approach and understanding of the bigger picture are a product of his own good character, but also of the mindful coaching he has received. In the future, Zambia’s rowing  communities may look to him to uphold the sport. Perhaps he’ll be a leader in a different arena. Either way, his time with Kansanshi Rowing Club and the True Athlete Project will have given him the moral grounding to lead with honesty and compassion.


  1. This is good and I am glad the young man has won a scholarship. I kept athletes and sponsored them through school at my own expenses for nearly 20 years and I have seen commendable results as a former athlete with Samuel Matete and former Zambian Chief Coach in track and field before I came to the USA almost two decades ago. @Kaizer Zulu, stick to politics instead of just wanting to hear yourself sing even over issues you have very little knowledge of. Don’t assume everyone here is stupid.

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