Hockey Star Phumelela Mbande Embraces Motherhood

South Africa’s former Hockey captain and goalkeeper, Phumelela Mbande, retired from playing hockey after representing her country with grace on the global stage. At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, she was South Africa’s flag-bearer. Now a mom of two, she says retirement has done her a lot of good.

“I think my retirement came at a time when I really needed to ground myself and figure out life outside of the sport that had been an integral part of my life since childhood. My retirement also came with a relocation (from Pretoria to Pietermaritzburg). It was daunting at first, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed how relaxed and laid back life has become since!”

She does, however, miss a few things about playing hockey. “I miss the friendships. There’s something about stressing about the next fitness test or performing at your next event that bonds you in a way no other experience in life has.”

Currently, she is minimally involved in sport. She serves on the SASCOC athletes commission, which reports directly to the SASCOC board.

Mbande made her national debut in 2012 and went on to study and qualify as a Chartered Accountant. She’s now added ‘Mom of 2’ to her bio, and she says motherhood has been amazing.

“As someone who didn’t want any children for a long time, I have been pleasantly surprised and completely consumed by how much I’ve enjoyed motherhood. My boys are the absolute best thing I’ve ever done, and I love, love that I get to call myself their mom! It sounds so cliché, but motherhood has truly been the greatest honour!”

Phumelela Mbande, former South Africa Hockey Captain and Goalkeeper 

Boasting a lengthy career in hockey spanning 20 years, she became a prominent feature in SA Sport, an ambassador not just for her country but also for all young, black, female athletes. 

She’s been an outstanding captain and leader on the pitch, and in her replies to gsport senior writer Lonwabo Nkohla, it is evident that she has embraced this new role of ‘Mama’ with grace and determination.

“Motherhood has given me so much perspective. So many things become insignificant when you have a life you are responsible for. It has taught me to be kinder to myself and that some things really don’t matter.”

“In preparation for motherhood, I spent a lot of time in therapy, working on things I’ve struggled with for many years, even throughout my hockey career. It is only in wanting to be a mom, and preparing for it, that I’ve been able to break some barriers and get to the core of these struggles.”

“And it was done with my children in mind – that if not for me (or my career), then I need to do it for them, to ensure I’m the best version of myself, and the best mom I can be to them.”

The 2021 gsport Ministerial Award recipient has received recognition for her outstanding achievements both on- and off the field on the gsport stage, as well as featuring on the M&G 200 Young South Africans list in 2022.

“As an athlete, you always push to do your best. It’s very rarely about the recognition you get, but because you put your heart and soul into your craft – it is therefore always a huge honour and privilege when someone recognises that and says ‘hey, you’re doing a brilliant job, keep it up’. For me, however, it goes even beyond the athlete; it is about the youngsters who are wanting to reach greater heights. It is so important for young children to have role models, to see people who look like them walk a path that they are working towards.

“The names Caster Semenya, Bongi Msomi, Thembi Kgatlana, those need to be household names for the children playing sport as a social activity because they carry that image with them as they grow in their sport. I can barely float in a pool, but I always remember Penny Heyns and Natalie du Toit as the female athletes of my childhood. They are the only two women athletes I remember from when I was a kid, and they resonated with me!”

She was recognised for balancing the demands of her successful hockey career with a career in auditing. It is still a reality in 2024 that female athletes in South Africa and abroad must juggle a 9-5 job with playing sport.

“At the forefront of this will always be funding. We make it so much harder for women to succeed in juggling these facets of their lives by not paying them adequately, by expecting them to perform as elite athletes while providing subpar support.”

“Speaking about supporting women in sport is great, it gets people talking about the right things, but it can’t end there. If a mom can take unpaid leave at work so they can prepare for competition, without worrying about how to pay for the bills come month end, you are absolutely going to get a more successful athlete out of her. A less-stressed mom.”

There is a resounding call for the professionalisation of women’s sport, highlighting its potential to be a game-changer. Sadly, the song is sung by many, even those in influential positions, but with little action. Imagine how beneficial financial backing would be for a mother and/or wife who’s a professional in a chosen career and an elite athlete as well.

The Mthatha-born Mbande says professionalising any sport will take a huge weight off the athlete’s shoulders!

“I have at least one former teammate who is preparing for Paris at the moment – her job is the sport (she runs her own hockey school). Every single moment on tour/in preparation for Paris is money taken away from her household. It’s one thing worrying about not earning money for yourself, but if you’re a mom? You have a family to take care of? 

“These athletes are already giving their everything to their careers and trying to be as professional as they can be – make it official, and the results will only get better.”

Sometimes we see in some families that sport is part of the family DNA where one or both parents are athletes and kids follow in their footsteps. However, sport does come with its fair share of complications. Mbande says there are a lot of positives in kids taking up sport.

“I wouldn’t say push it as a career, but I will definitely encourage my kids to participate in sports. Team sport/cultural activity in particular. 

“Both my husband and I took part in sports throughout school, and one thing we agree on is that there are lessons and takeaways from team sports that you can’t learn even in an individual sport. Whether my kids will want to pursue a career in sports will be up to them. I would just like for them to fully immerse themselves in team sports and walk away with the beautiful friendships and life lessons.”

Team South Africa’s elite athletes are Paris bound with the Olympics under 80 days away. The global extravaganza starts on the 26th of July to the 11 of August 2024. Hockey is one of the codes that will don the green and gold in France.

“We have a very young squad going to Paris – some really exciting players who have come through the ranks, and a couple of older players who can really guide the group into some exciting positions if all comes together. I would love to see a team in Paris produce some beautiful hockey. Our players are quick, we have the requisite skills, we just need to peak at the right time. With Giles leading the pack, I’m confident the girls will be successful!

“I’m holding my breath for a successful Olympic campaign for Team SA. Tokyo 2021 was a different games and I don’t think we fully came to the party as Team SA, with a few disappointing performances across the board – we have had a really awesome partnership with Bidvest for this cycle where they’ve funded a few athletes on the Bidvest Opex program.

“This ensures that some of our athletes are receiving support in the form of living expenses, medical aid, local and international camps, and competitions etc. a program like this is how champions are made, and I am confident we will see the results of this investment in Paris!”

“I have taken the last two years to enjoy retirement and my marriage and new family. I have all the plans to return to sport, but definitely more in the background – facilitating change and progress where I am able to, and making an impact in the lives of little ones like so many did in mine.”

While we miss her passion and dedication for our beautiful rainbow nation on the Hockey field, may she enjoy post-retirement and the new journey of motherhood. 

In our hearts, Phumelela Mbande will be one of our country’s greatest role models.

Photo Caption: Former SA Women’s Hockey goalkeeper, Phumelela Mbande, recently added ‘Mom’ to her bio. As she embraces her new role, Mbande discusses how professionalising women’s sport would be a game-changer for mom elite athletes. All Photos: Phumelela Mbande on Instagram

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