25 February 2015
EARNING STRIPES: A TALE OF DOMINANCE
The University of Pretoria has established itself as one of the premier sporting universities in the country. Tuks have created a winning culture through victories across various sporting codes. We sat down with Steven Ball, the Deputy Director of Coaching and Performance Management, about why Tuks has achieved so much recent success.
Inside the University of Pretoria’s (Tuks) sport centre, life size photographs of victorious athletes from 2014 greet you with arms aloft and trophies hoisted. They are a testament to the current student champions in football, rugby, athletics, netball, rowing and martial arts who have achieved success for their university.
“People look at winning as a very closed, definitive thing,” says Deputy Director of Coaching and Performance Management, Steven Ball. “In most people’s minds, when I ask them what winning is, they’ll point to trophies and tournament victories, but here at Tuks, it’s not as simply defined.”
In 1999, Tuks were a competitive university across a few sports with individuals rather than teams shining on the national and global stage. When Kobus van der Walt was appointed as Director of Sport, things started changing.
Van der Walt’s vision was to transform the culture and ethos of the university, creating a more collaborative environment where honesty and integrity became the mandate. Another aspect that the university had decided to focus on was competitiveness and the way in which the sports are played. Winning stopped being the end goal for the coaches and athletes and instead became a bi-product of this new mind-set. As Ball says, “with the right environment and the right stimulus, the cream will rise.”
It seems whimsical and romantic to emphasise abstract concepts like culture and ethos in sport. It almost seems patronising given the recent success of Tuks. Their cricket team has recently won the Red Bull Campus Cricket World Finals tournament, beating a team from the West Indies in the final at Lords last year. Their cricketers have also won the Momentum National Club Championship for the third consecutive year. The men’s football side have dominated Varsity Football in recent years. Their swimming and rowing teams are the reigning university champions in their respective sports. Students and athletes from Tuks have recently stood on top of international podiums in athletics and judo. Their trophy cabinet is brimming with accolades from a variety of codes and the number of Proteas that call Tuks home continues to grow.
“We love to win, and we love to celebrate our success,” beams Ball. The way he speaks about ‘his’ coaches and athletes is not possessive, but filled with pride, reiterating this idea of a collective unit striving for success. “The most important thing is how we play the game, how competitive we are. That’s what we push to our coaches; be competitive, challenge the athletes, make sure the environment is the right one for them to improve. If they’re supposed to win, that win will eventually come. If we only focus on the win, we’ll forget about the small successes.”
These small successes are the building blocks for Tuks victories. Ball speaks about teams made up of individuals of different races, religions, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, all coming together for a single purpose. He tells me about how their netball team lost in the Varsity Netball final last season but graciously accepted the defeat as part of the learning experience. He explains that the sports teams are not removed from the academic institution that they represent, but are rather an extension of it and therefore the athletes are groomed to be well-rounded humans rather than finely tuned athletic machines.
With Varsity Sports (rugby, cricket, netball, athletics, football and hockey) becoming more prominent and the trophies becoming more prestigious, the pressures and demands on the coaches and athletes has increased. Student athletes now no longer play for mere pride and for the privilege of representing their university. Matches are televised and the Varsity Sport program is now seen as a big stage to demonstrate talent and to launch professional careers.
“The demands have certainly increased,” admits Ball. “The dynamic has changed but we are conscious at the university to never get to the point that the NCAA and the college system in America has got to. Each sport needs to uphold the culture of the institution and if that means losing the match but keeping the integrity, then so be it.”
There is a level of professionalism that now accompanies Varsity Sport that threatens this philosophy. I watched Hilton Lobberts run out in the final of the rugby Varsity Cup in Pretoria against Tuks for the University of Cape Town in 2011, five years after touring with the Springboks. Hardly an example of a breeding ground for young talent that any university tournament should be.
“If we have to compromise results on the field while keeping the integrity of the institution intact, then so be it,” Ball says defiantly. However, results on the field have been positive, all the while holding true to the values that Ball stresses. So how do they do it?
“We encourage communication within our sporting structures,” explains Ball. “We have regular coach’s forums where challenges can be discussed in an open environment.” The cricket coach might face a challenge that the golf coach has overcome. Player development in hockey might hit a snag but because netball has successfully resolved a similar issue, the problem does not seem insurmountable. Ball explains, “It’s not rocket science. We discuss these things openly. Any coach in the world can go and look at the positive impact this kind of integration can have on a sports institution.” Every coach, manager and player feels that they are part of the same team. Success in one sport breeds success in another because the buy-in across the board has reached a level where Tuks as a collective comes before any personal gain.
“All our coaches and players want to wear the Stripe (the red band that represents the university’s sports teams). They want to be part of the Stripe Generation. The Stripes are our Olympic rings. It’s been around longer than the Blue Bulls (Pretoria’s rugby union side).”
There is a focus not only on the elite athletes that make up the premier teams in each sport and who operate in the ‘train to win’ phase, but also on the less accomplished athletes that make up the majority of Tuks sport and who function in the ‘train to compete’ phase. These are players who will never represent their university on TV or in international competitions but are just as important to the success of the university as the national representatives. These fringe athletes increase the talent pool substantially and create a foundation on which talent can thrive. They do all of this because just like those at the top, they have bought in to the ethos of the Stripe.
Ball reiterates the fact that the reason players perform so well for Tuks is because they truly want to; not for themselves, but for the university and what it represents. Rival institutions in the country offer top athletes bursaries around R80 000 to R90 000. The largest sum Tuks offers is considerably less. That means athletes are drawn to Tuks for reasons that aren’t financial. State of the art facilities – which Tuks undoubtedly has – coupled with excellent coaching can only develop an athlete so far. Walking the halls of the university’s sport centre I really got the sense that something special is happening. It was hard for me not to be caught up in the romantic ideals that Ball has bought in to and sells to those who represent the Stripe.
“The demand for winning is so high right now,” Ball admits. “Varsity Sport has changed the way we do things and we understand that the demands are extremely high but I would lose every tournament we enter before we sell ourselves and our integrity in pursuit of victory.”
Looking at the current crop of champions, that scenario looks very unlikely.