Our Day Behind the Scenes with the SA Women’s Hockey Team

The South African Women’s hockey team were kind enough to let us join them on a beautiful Saturday morning in Johannesburg for their on-pitch training session. After spending the day with USA earlier in the week, we were once again impressed by the facilities offered by a local school’s water-based astro (we also got soaked by the sprinklers).

The warm up was not too dissimilar from the club back home where Jemma and I play, starting from the line and performing stretches in unison, followed by sprints and ladder work.

The team prepare for the session with dynamic stretches

The girls split off into two groups, one working on an attacking/midfield drill, with quick passing and then a cross into the D for the oncoming striker to try to get in front of the keeper. The other group played in a huge triangle the whole width and a quarter the length of the pitch. The first player slapped the ball across the pitch, the second played a backhand down the line to the third who had to aerial the ball over a strategically positioned goal. They also had to follow the ball; a very tiring looking drill!

Backhand pass down the line during a defensive drill

I was chatting to Maryke Eloff, who is the conditioning coach, and she was saying that her main objective to make them fit and strong enough, promoting lean muscle mass for quick performance. She focuses on the recovery processes, including protein shakes, ice baths and a run in the morning. She’s been with them for 3 years, joining the team just after the World Cup in 2014. She said, “I’ve seen the improvement, with their conditioning and physicality as well as their skill and tactics.” She attributes these improvement to Head Coach Sheldon Rostron and his coaching staff.

The squad gathered round to understand what was expected in the next drill

One of the most stark differences we noticed compared to the USA team was that there were no GPS trackers, no computer analysis, just plain old fashioned coaching. They do use GPS but they chose not to in this training session. I imagine this type of equipment doesn’t come cheap and shows the difference in the way the sport is funded in both countries. The tracking system South Africa use is borrowed from a local university by way of a friend using it as a project for her study.

When you consider that this group of girls are ranked no.13 in the world, you have to wonder what could be achieved with more help

The only money South Africa receive is from their sponsors, Private Property. As in a lot of countries, hockey isn’t up there with the likes of football, rugby and cricket in South Africa, and rarely has any national funding. So when you consider that this group of girls are ranked no.13 in the world, you have to wonder what could be achieved with a little more help.

In fact, when I spoke to Sheldon after the session he informed me that the 12 staff who keep the South Africa Women’s Hockey Team going, including himself are all volunteers. These are such a great bunch of people and the epitome of what our game is about. In the UK, we see this type of thing at local clubs up and down the country, people working for hockey clubs for the love of the sport. I never expected to see that at international level!

Rostron keeping an eye on practice from a great vantage point

The girls had a great session today and it was great to see them all laughing and smiling again after their defeat to Chile.

At one point Jemma and I had a challenge with the coaching staff to see who could hit a cone, placed on the back line, from the half way line. Everyone had a few tries but on her 3rd attempt, Jemma hit the cone. Game over. Hockey Family 1, SA coaching staff 0.

Afterwards, I asked Sheldon about the training session and what he wanted to get out of it. He told us, “We wanted to come back to some of the points we saw in our video footage regarding our build up and our ability to break inside of the circle. We wanted to come back and remind them of those key aspects and to give them a bit of confidence in the training session”.

Drag flick practice

When asked about what preparation they were putting in specifically for the USA game, he said, “There were some set pieces we were doing to prepare us for the USA game tomorrow and again just building confidence and technical aspects”.

It was a sucker punch for the girls to lose to Chile and I asked Sheldon how they overcame that. “I think the girls spirits are good today. We’ve made a good turnaround from yesterday. We know we have to go out and perform and that there is still a chance for us to progress”. He continued, “we have to make sure that we go out and invest every effort into this chance to progress to the quarter final which I’m very confident we can do”.

5v4 inside the defensive 23

Jemma and I left full of admiration for this team; every one of them. They are a shining example to the world of what people can achieve for the love of their sport, and a special mention has to go to the team Manager, Shaune Baaitjies, who has looked after us every step of the way.

Getting drenched by the sprinklers during warm up
Working hard on their ariel skills
Warm up drill

Joanne Pilson

Joanne Pilson is from Doncaster, England and is the Communications Officer for Worksop Ladies Hockey Club, writing original, topical content about hockey and women's sports. Joanne plays hockey, cricket and football and enjoys them with a passion, although she's only done so for the last five years. Sport has done so much to enhance her life, she continuously encourages others to take part and does all she can to promote it..