Newly appointed TuksSport Director and acting CEO of the High-Performance Centre, Steven Ball, plans to elevate the university’s system to ensure all athletes have ample opportunities to develop their sporting careers.
Ball, who has over 20 years’ experience working with the institution, believes there is much more work to be done to ensure Tuks remains a leader in the university sporting space.
As a father to two young daughters, Ball is an advocate for women and believes in this modern era, the talk of gender equality should not be a topic of discussion as sporting opportunities should be available to all.
He is also eager to ensure that there is a balance between education and sport to provide a solid future for all student-athletes.
Speaking with Celine Abrahams, Ball chats about his journey to date and his aspirations for Olympic-bound athletes.
Steven, thank you for chatting to gsport! Congratulations on your recent appointments as TuksSport’s new director and acting CEO of the High-Performance Centre (hpc). What have the first few days in office been like for you?
Not a problem at all! Thank you so much! Honestly, I feel like Joe Bidden coming into Presidency! I officially start on the first of March with the role, so there is a bit of a handover process at the moment. I must say that the responses and messages of support I have received since the university made the official announcement have been overwhelming.
I am lucky to have been in the system over the years, so I know quite a few people but most importantly, it is now time to understand the things that I wasn’t aware of or some of the small details. So, myself and the outgoing Director are working hand-in-hand on all the finer details.
We know it is still early days and the handover process is underway, however what immediate plans do you have in place to elevate TuksSport and create an improved platform for your athletes?
The first and foremost thing is to understand what our core business is and what it is that we are here about. I say this will all respect, but we aren’t just another club in Pretoria. We are at the university and what that means is that it comes with a different type of responsibility. It comes with the responsibility of education, which is our core business and to give a platform to people to challenge their thinking.
“We are looking at sustaining our programmes by going back to the core of who we are.” – TuksSport Director and HPC CEO, Steven Ball
We are looking at sustaining our programmes by going back to the core of who we are. Yes, we have High-Performance athletes going to Olympic Games and we are fortunate to have those opportunities, but we have an educational responsibility.
Over the years we have been so fortunate through hard work from a collective of many people and my 20 plus years to develop a culture at TuksSport that has become strong. And, now as the captain of the ship, one of my biggest roles is to keep maintaining that culture, refining it and driving the conversation to enhance the environment.
There are perceptions that we as a university have got everything, we have all the resources, etc, and it is not that way. I always say, if I have one-rand worth of resources, what do I do with the one-rand. Have I used that privilege, that responsibility of that amount to be able to be sustainable, to be impactful and have I been prudent in what I do with it or am I just wasting the privilege of having it?
The sustainability of sport is a big discussion, prior to Covid as well. Performance programmes cost money, they don’t make money because you are always trying to find money to support the next athlete to go to the next competition or to go for an MRI Scan, Strength and Conditioning, whatever the case might be.
At the moment, Covid has really speeded up the whole process and we now have a situation where we have to act. It is so easy for us to all sit back and say let us wait for Covid to finish but one thing that I was reminded throughout last year was never waste a good crisis by Winston Churchill. We have the responsibility now to run towards the problem and addressing it face on.
Please tell us about your journey in sport and how you got involved with TuksSport.
I came to study at UP and that was my first opportunity getting into sport. When I was looking at best route to study Biokinetics, the Cape was too far, at that stage UKZN wasn’t really an option in terms of reputation and a solid programme with this specific degree and Free State, I could never see myself in Bloem. It was a toss-up between Potchefstroom and UP.
I went on to get my Honours in Biokinetics and I had the opportunity to do a year internship. It was at that point at the end of 2000 going into 2001 where the then Sports Commission were developing centres of excellence where national federations were linking with university structures and sport programmes. And, the then Institute of Research normally took one intern but that year they took four and I was fortunate to be one of the four.
In that 2001 year, UP and the Institute became a centre of excellence for swimming, etc. That’s when I started to work with athletes and programmes. It was also the first year the university had its academy which was the Icon Rugby Academy.
Swimming South Africa’s then national coaching director, Rocco Meiring, who is now Tatjana’s (Schoenmaker) coach, came to the university saying that they needed to take the next step as a federation to incorporate some form of science-related support for the national squad.
I was given the opportunity work with the federation for four years and act as a Bio-Sports Scientist for a national swimming squad leading through Commonwealth Games and World Champs. Over the years I have been involved in various projects to be where I am today.
Where does your passion for sport come from?
“I was very lucky because at an early age I got to see sport first-hand.” – Ball speaks on his passion for sport developing at a young age.
Growing up in a small community in Ladysmith, we would do anything, and my parents were involved in sport as well. Before I turned 10, my dad developed a passion for coaching swimming and eventually after getting his qualifications, he got into it as a hobby because he worked a normal job.
I was very lucky because, at an early age, I got to see sport first-hand. I got to see club committee meetings at times in our lounge and how he dealt with parents. He was also my swimming coach. So, from a young age I developed a love and passion for sport.
In primary school I played rugby in the winter months, swimming in summer, tennis, I tried out a variety of different sports.
You eventually took a different route in sport and did not pursue becoming an athlete as a career path. What brought about this decision?
I learnt really early on that I was never going to be the High-Performance athlete in the world (laughs). And, it’s for various reasons…I was probably not the most gifted athlete, I had to work extremely hard for what others had naturally and I knew that I wasn’t going to be that Olympic champion and that was fine.
But one thing I did have was the passion to understand sport and understand the dynamics that take place in sport. For example, back in high school sitting with a group of friends, I could give interesting information around a certain sporting code, whether it be history or the rules of the game – I just had a natural passion for it.
When I was in Grade 9, my dad heard about this thing called a Biokineticist, which was a special word those days (laughs). There was a guy in Pietermaritzburg – Richard Turnbell – he worked with the then Banana Boys which are now called The Sharks focussing on their strength and conditioning. My dad took some of us from the swimming team to test with these guys because he was curious to know what it was all about.
They did everything from fitness to strength and I remember walking out of the place that day saying to my dad that was what I wanted to do later in life. From then I started thinking about what it would take to consider it as a study path at university because we did not have a wealth of resources and money in our bank accounts, so we had one chance and took study loans and that was one opportunity I grabbed with both hands.
Let us chat about women’s sport at university level. What is the state of the women’s game at Tuks and what are you aiming to do differently to make a more positive change?
I think the big thing is to keep creating pockets of excellence. We have got to be cautious that we are only driving a conversation around female sport for example. I believe whether you are female or male, you should have opportunities available for you to do what you want to do.
We shouldn’t be in this position in this day and age still having the conversation about equality. I am a girl-dad, I have two daughters and my hope is that when they are grown and want to do certain things that they are given those opportunities freely.
In terms of the pockets of excellence, we have our Tuks Women’s Rugby Programme, TuksNetball ladies programme is a huge pocket of excellence if you look at what coach Jenny (van Dyk) has been able to achieve with the team, the TUT Women’s Football and our swimming programme where we have had swimmers consistently performing throughout the ranks.
Driving these pockets of excellence and not compromising them like some who have grouped women’s sport is a “charity thing”, it is not charity, it is important!
Who are some of Tuks’ rising stars that we should be keeping an eye on?
We are fortunate at university level that the influx of students every two to five years as we have new people coming into the system. We have many athletes, and some are still young, but they have somehow old hands.
I’ll use Tatjana as an example. With all that she has achieved, she’s still a rising star, she’s 22! Kaylene Corbett Top 8 at the World Champs, same year as Tatjana when she won the silver medal. Michaela Whitebooi in Judo, who could be a qualifier for the Olympics.
Within the women’s rugby space, the current Sevens setup has a lot of ladies who have come through Tuks’ system as they have studied here – Nadine Roos for example, who is competing with the national Sevens Team.
Our rowing, netball, athletics teams, our hockey programme where the U21 national squad which was recently announced includes five of our ladies.
There are also a few ladies who are potentials to make Team SA for the Olympics, which is something to keep an eye on our platforms.
What are your hopes for the athletes at TuksSport, especially this being an Olympic year?
Honestly, I can only hope for the best from them. I can’t put pressure and say exactly how many medals we would like to see come through because with sport anything can happen.
The athlete that you would think will bring you a record number of medals would go there and due to certain factors whether it be training, injury, any circumstances, would not live up to your expectations. So, that’s why I believe that it is vital to support them and wish that they do their best.
What advice would you give to a young sports star who is aiming to reach global status one day?
Don’t focus on the end, focus on the platform. We don’t know what will be thrown at us, we can’t control that but what we can do is control what is in front of us today and take the responsibility of what you can control and the opportunity that you find yourself in.
Photo 1 Caption: TuksSport Director and acting High-Performance CEO, Steven Ball, officially takes up office on 1 March, 2021. Photo: TuksSport (Twitter)