Interview: Sport Science head-on!
It is always interesting to get to know some of the people behind the articles that come up on SPORT SCIENCE COLLECTIVE. I was introduced to Hanno van Vuuren through another contributor who thought he’d fit the bill for the site. I was privileged to be able to meet Hanno in person earlier this year, where we discussed and solved some of the world’s problems over a drink. An enthusiastic sport scientist and down-to-earth human being, Hanno is a valuable contributor to SPORT SCIENCE COLLECTIVE and I hope you get to know him a bit better through the following Q&A.
What is your sport science background and area of expertise?
HvV: My sport science background kicked off in high school, when they presented sport science as a subject in grade 8 and 9. From there on in, I knew exactly what field of study I wanted to pursue. I completed my undergraduate in Sport Science and honours in High Performance at Stellenbosch University (2013-2016) and I’m currently enrolled for a MSc investigating concussion knowledge in club rugby. We were lucky enough to receive an honours project in rugby, which gave me quite a bit of exposure in performance analysis which has also become a major passion for me. So, you could say my main focus has always been rugby, specifically strength and conditioning, performance analysis, and also coaching in general.
Where do you currently work and what are your roles?
HvV: I’ve been involved with club rugby in the Western Cape for the last 4 years, which has really been an eye-opening journey, having experienced different cultures. I’m currently working on a project doing performance analysis with high school rugby on u14-u16 level within the Western Cape. At the same time, myself and a Biokineticist are running the rugby S&C at Brackenfell High School for the u19’s. The last couple of years I’ve also been running a rugby skills program for primary school players – trying to fully equip them for the step up to high school level.
What sports have you been involved with in either of a playing or working capacity?
HvV: Rugby, Rugby and even more Rugby! I love all formats of the game - I play in the annual Cape Town 10s Tournament, which is a massive celebration of the game. During the year I play loads of Tag Rugby, which for me is one of the best tools for skills development. Then this past year also having been asked to coach a bit of speed, agility and quickness for Netball –so I decided to take up some Action Netball.
Tell us a bit more about your Masters and what knowledge and skills you will be taking away from it.
HvV: In short, my Masters focusses on concussion and return-to-play: knowledge, roles, and responsibilities in Western Cape club rugby. For me this injury is something quite abstract and it has received much attention but no practical solution. My goals are to bring awareness to concussion on club level and ultimately meet new coaches and build a wider network within the sport. I think club rugby within South Africa is one of the most under-utilized methods of scouting for talent, but we are too comfortable recruiting from u19 level. I believe something you could take away from any MSc or postgraduate studies is the lesson of time management, and also learning how to work with athletes/students from all walks of life. For me, postgraduate studies have been all about teamwork with other students and mentors, and accepting that I don’t know enough.
How did your studies prepare you for the working world?
HvV: I think my postgraduate studies had most influence in preparing me for the working world, being asked to complete hours in different sporting capacities (from logistics to high performance coaching). Also getting to work with practical lecturers (coaches) and mentors had a major influence on my coaching and career. Studies only provide you with bits and pieces of what is out there, I think it is up to you as person to investigate and find out more about the bits and pieces until you get your own puzzle built.
Do you have a sport science or S&C philosophy?
HvV: I believe that there are two things in this world that are non-negotiable; the first being commitment, and the other is having heart. Commitment is getting to practice or in-front of the books, heart on the other hand is going above and beyond coaching, learning, or sharing. Heart for me is planning a session, getting to know your players, trying to see how you can make them better. A cool quote I saw on social media the other day was – “the only two people who made an athlete was his/her parents”. I think our role as coaches and sport scientists is to help them achieve their goals and give athletes a little bit of ourselves. And lastly but most importantly – “share, please share”. There are so many people who want to connect in the field of sport, so why are we so selfish with our information?
Where do you go to when you’re looking for information on training, S&C, or science-related matters?
HvV: I think the first place to start is at the realization that you do not know everything, and nobody expects you to. I usually start by bouncing ideas off other coaches and people in related fields and even trainers in other sports. I think social media and literature is also so rich with information, both are powerful tools to search for information. Just on this point, copy and paste of drills and exercises do not work if you don’t understand the purpose or “why” behind it. Then lastly, I try to execute or implement as much of it on myself, you can’t prescribe anything you haven’t done yourself.
What is your personal view on the role a sport scientist should play within the context of a sports team?
HvV: I think the sport scientist should be a starry-eyed dreamer with a head full of possibly attainable ideas. A sport scientist should be a jack of all trades and put systems in place to make the rest of the staff and athletes’ job’s easier. Sport scientists should have the knowledge of knowing “why” teams do what they do and how to bring that across to all parties. A sport scientist shouldn’t have to be the best coach or S&C – they should be the best at trying to make others better.
Do you have a sport science or S&C mentor?
HvV: Yes, a couple of mentors have come across my path and I think each one of them had a different role to play. Dr Wilbur Kraak was the first real mentor, he actually asked me to help with a SSC article a while back and from then on in I felt right at home contributing. Dr Kraak was one of my lecturers and has been a close coaching and personal mentor. Then recently I have been working with Thys Stoltz who has been helping me with performance analysis in schools and getting a new project up and running. I read somewhere that you should always have a mentor to look up to, someone on the same level as you (to keep you in check), and someone who you are mentoring or helping along. When I think of mentors, my mates in the sport industry also come to mind, guys like M.C. Coetzee, Piet Cilliers, Johann Zeier, and Riaan Carr. Whenever my head starts running away with me, these gents are the first I turn to, we throw ideas across a room until something sticks.
Theoretically: If you were given free rein to do as you wish within the context of sport science in South Africa, what would you try to implement to promote, progress, and protect the field?
HvV: Tough question, I would like to implement better sharing between the sport and exercise science departments of different universities. At the moment it feels like we aren’t sharing knowledge at all and the athletes are the ones who don’t place on the podium. I would also like to deformalize the field of sport science, for example the relationship between lecturers and students. Up until honours the students are kept at an arm’s length and only shown glimpses of the actual working field. So, for me the best way would be to initiate a mentoring system, with more practical lecturers and mentors. I would create a connection between the elite sporting bodies and the sport science department.
Is there any advice you would give to those considering or working towards a sport science qualification?
HvV:I would advise anyone working towards a sport qualification to firstly make sure that it is what they want to do – too many students drop out or change courses after a couple of months. So, my tip to others would be to shadow before deciding on making sport science the field of study they want to pursue.
Then if I had to start all over I would begin by coaching, interning, volunteering early in my career and build up the experience level. Make peace with the fact that you are going to be working for free for at least 4 years – welcome to the real world. Then find a mentor who is inspiring and twice as passionate as you and ask for their help repeatedly and fail often. At the end of the day you will see it becomes a symbiotic relationship in which you work in tandem. Lastly, and on a sentimental note, “you don’t know what you don’t know” – great sport scientists are the ones attending the other lecturers’ classes and still learning every day.