Interview: Making her mark in sport science
I don’t recall how, but I happened across an interview with Minky Tshabalala on the Citizen, and I thought I just had to make contact. After chatting to this energetic young sport scientist, I couldn’t help but feel energised myself. Hopefully this brief interview will leave you in a similar state. Thank you to Minky for giving up her time in a very busy schedule to talk to SPORT SCIENCE COLLECTIVE about herself, her journey, and sport science.
What is your sport science background and area(s) of expertise?
MT: I studied a BA Sport Science degree as well as my honours degree at the University of Pretoria. I then did my practical work experience at the High Performance Centre in the same year. I have been working as a Football Sport Scientist for the past 8 years. My experience ranges from junior level all the way up to senior level. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience some success having won trophies with my previous teams, most recently winning the bronze medal with the SA u20 National women’s team at the COSAFA championship tournament in Port Elizabeth.
My areas of expertise include strength and conditioning, injury management and prevention. I was involved with sport genetics for year, while I took a break from university sports.
You got into sport science because of your love for sport and an injury that steered you towards studies, but what made you choose sport science over biokinetics or another similar field?
MT: I chose sport science, because I still wanted to be part of a team and having my “outdoor office” on the field. I spoke to one of my lecturers, while studying and she asked “what do you enjoy more, rehabilitation or training athletes?’’ I told her I wanted to help athletes to perform to the best of their ability. Right there, she told me that I had made my choice and wished me good luck with my sport science career.
Where do you currently work and what are your roles?
MT: I currently work as the Sport Science Unit Manager at UJ Sport (University of Johannesburg). The unit provides services to the seven high performance and recreational sporting codes. My role within the university structure includes having to oversee the effective functioning of the Sport Science division, by defining the scope of the Sport Science and Performance Excellence needs within each High Performance sport code in collaboration with the respective Club Manager and Coach.
Please tell us a bit more about your unit. Which sports do you work with and how do you structure the workload among the sport scientists?
MT: The unit has seven Sport Scientists who are assigned one high performance sport code and one competitive code, the rugby is a bit tricky as we have four teams that the assigned Sport Scientist has to work with, which is a large group. The Sport Scientists assist with athlete development, scientific testing and training of student athletes. In terms of the workload structure, I try ensure that that the different sport codes do not clash in terms of competition season in order for all assigned Sports Scientists to perform their jobs optimally. We also have flexi-hours in order to accommodate the student athlete’s schedule. I have been fortunate to work with the netball and volleyball in the past two years outside of my football specialty.
What have been your biggest challenges or barriers as a sport scientist?
MT: I think the biggest challenge for any sport scientist is getting the buy-in and support from coaches and athletes to trust the process and the systems put in place. At times people may perceive you as a coach or a Personal Trainer instead of a Sport Scientist.
How have you dealt with making your mark in a male-dominated field?
MT: Focusing on the job at hand and not being discouraged by being in a male-dominated field, I used to get the random questions like, “Are you sure you’re in the right industry?” and “Don’t you want to work in an office?” In the past, it would make me question my career choice, but some of the coaches I have worked with have been more open-minded and allowed me to do my job to the best of my ability.
Do you have any sport science mentors?
MT: Dr Ross Tucker whose knowledge of sport science is incredible. He has a no-nonsense approach and states the facts. Another mentor in the field of sport is Dr. Phathokuhle Zondi the current CEO of SISSA. She is quite an admirable and fierce woman, and she inspired me to keep pushing myself in this field. I remember sitting in her office one day and telling her that I wanted to quit and change my field, but she encouraged me not to give up and shared her own experience of working in the industry. She motivated me and ever since then I have looked up to her as my role model. She is always breaking barriers and I aspire to have her strength.
While you were overseas with the SA U17 women’s football team, I hope you had a sneaky look at your opposition. What techniques or lessons did you pick-up about your opposition and how they prepare for performance?
MT: We all know this, but it was confirmed for me that preparation is key and that we need more time in terms of preparing for tournaments. The Japanese team who beat us on our second match day: they trained before our game, trained next to us and our session was identical to ours, from the warm-up and small sided games, to the tactical sessions. The only difference was they had camped together as a team for longer than a year and their technique was solid. Every pass and movement of the ball was incredible; they didn’t even have to look at each other when passing the ball. They knew their teammate would be there to receive the pass. So in terms of session content we’re not too far off, but they executed their game plan better.
What is your personal view on the role a sport scientist should play within the context of a sports team?
MT: The role of the Sport Scientist within a sports team is of a supportive role and works in collaboration to provide coaching staff with evidence-based approaches to athlete development and performance. As an assistant or support staff, you can provide information such as specialised training methodology to strategic or tactical decisions as you also form part of the technical staff.
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?
MT: Recognition of Sport Scientists within the national team set-up, as most times we get confused for being Biokineticists. We all have a service to provide in terms of enhancing performance of athletes. We need to work together as a collective and not try to separate the two within the industry.
Provide budget for sports facilities and communities to be able to hire qualified personnel to ensure effective training methods are followed and to minimise injury occurrence in athletes. Implementing a mentorship programme specifically for Sport Scientists and encourage that one is able to complete at least one year of partial work experience while still studying to progress the field.
What is the next step for Minky Tshabalala? Or what would you like to be doing 10 years from now?
MT: I have the upcoming tournament with u17 national team later in the year and possibly working with a premier league team in the near future. I definitely want to obtain my masters qualification in the next year.
Is there any advice you would give to those considering or working towards a sport science qualification?
MT: Have the passion for the job and never stop learning. It’s not always glamourous and you do work on weekends, but in the end it is worth it. Find a mentor who can guide you in the field.