South African women’s hockey goalkeeper, Phumelela Mbande, is approaching twenty years in hockey and is finding power in using her voice to champion a new future for the next generation.
Mbande was introduced to hockey at a private school during her early school years, and has not looked back since then, rising up to make her national debut in 2012, and also going on to study and qualify as a Chartered Accountant.
As she says, in this in-depth interview with gsport Editor, Kass Naidoo, hockey is her joy, and influences her sporting and life decisions.
Mbande and her national team mates have qualified for the Olympics but unless they raise the required funds for the trips, they could miss out on this showpiece event yet again.
But this dynamite woman in sport puts forward a strong case in support of women’s hockey and has set challenging goals for herself personally to make sure she plays her part in making their dreams come true.
If you are a young player, listen to Mbande and be inspired to pursue your sporting goals.
Phumelela, it’s been a while. How are you?
Very good, thank you Kass. It’s really good to be here with you. It’s been a while since we chatted, yes!
Well, Covid has made it difficult, hasn’t it? It’s changed everything. How’s it changed it for you?
Look, it’s been a whole new world. Lots of challenges just from a sporting perspective, from a work perspective, but I think it’s been a really nice opportunity to see how we can sort of redefine ourselves and what we do, especially in terms of work-life flexibility.
I think when I look at the audit space specifically, I’ve had a lot more chance, a lot more opportunity to really try balance work and hockey a lot better. Working from home, you can sort of step into the gym in the morning and then quickly shower and get back to work, which is not always so easy when you are working a tight, I won’t say 9 to 5, but it’s more like 9 to 9. But yeah, it’s been really nice.
The first bit was maybe a bit more challenging, but the more we’ve gone into it, the better we’ve gotten at it, so we are working now. It’s comfortable, fairly comfortable.
It’s tough to become a chartered accountant. It’s tougher when you are also managing a national sporting career. Have you managed to get this together and get the balance right?
With a lot of luck , lot of prayer… laughs! It has been incredibly difficult, but I think I’ve had a really great support system in terms of the coaches that I’ve worked with, the players that have played, my parents at home. My siblings. It’s a dream that I had and with the people around me I was able to sort of navigate my way through lots of crying. But it’s nice to see how it’s all played out now.
I think if you ask anyone who’s in audit, the first thing they’ll say is don’t do it. It’s not possible. I mean, when I first started articles everyone was saying “no manager will ever let you go for six weeks at a time to play tournament” or whatever. But what I’ve realized in my journey is, not just at work, but even when I was still at varsity and with the coaches that I’ve worked with, if you just speak up to people and you approach it like head on or before things get to the messy parts, I think a lot of people are really willing to assist.
Everyone loves a good hardworking story, like a good story behind the person that you see in front of you. So if you just need buy in from the different people involved, it becomes a bit easier to manage. Lots of crying, but it’s like I said, there’s people that want to make it work.
I love the fact that hockey has played such a great part in your development as a person. You don’t keep your sport separate and your corporate separate. Hockey is your joy, isn’t it?
100%! Whenever anyone asks about the hockey, I get a huge smile on my face because like you said it’s such a big part of who I am and I think it’s such a big part of my journey really and how far I have come as a person, opportunities that I’ve been afforded. It’s all come through what I’ve been able to do on the hockey field. Yeah, like, it really is an integral part of me as a person.
When you go back to primary school and that first opportunity to have a look at hockey, what were your real thoughts about the sport?
I said hell no… laughs!
The first time I saw a hockey ball, I was like… there’s no way I am doing that. I mean, I didn’t know anything about hockey before I actually started playing. When I was ten years old. I got to a school where hockey was a compulsory sport. The only sport I’d ever really been exposed to before then was athletics and netball. I didn’t play netball, it was something I saw people around me play. And then when I got to Lynford, it was a compulsory winter sport and we don’t really have a choice. But when I saw the ball and I saw the kit bag, I was like yeah I’m gonna navigate towards that direction. It seemed to make a lot of sense and even now like I always say, I think hockey players are a little bit crazy. As a goalkeeper, I feel a lot safer than I think fewer players are. But yeah, my first thoughts about the sport was no ways. But obviously I grew to love it a lot, and it’s where I’m happiest. And its where I’m most proud to be.
It’s probably been massive in terms of your development in those formative years. When you have a look at how you moved through University, was able to study, play hockey. In later years to come, you’re going to look at this and say, well, hockey really has touched every aspect of who I am.
So I often have conversations with other players about what it would feel like to get to retirement age. I mean, I’m 28 now, so people around me are starting to have those kinds of conversations and I always say I’m so scared of what life would be like without hockey. So much of my – it’s a good thing, but it’s also quite a bad thing – but so much of who I am as a person is defined by my sport. To the point that when I’m having a bad phase in hockey, I sort of have a bad life phase as well. It feels like my life’s falling apart.
It’s something I’ve been working with my psychologist to not define myself by my good and bad moments on the field. I’m a person outside of hockey, but that’s literally the extent that it goes to that it takes up every part of my life so much, like my social life comes second best my work life sort of comes first and second, like there’s a balance that I try figure out there. But like everyone in my life knows, you probably not seeing me because I’m a training or I’ve got a game on the weekend. That type of thing. So it really has, like you said, touched every aspect of my life and I dread just thinking about what life will be like once I eventually retire.
I have to say that the obsessive passion will play a role at some stage and one of the ways I think it may play out in your life is you are very passionate about transformation in hockey. Players For Transformation (PFT) and a movement that you are really part of. I have a feeling this passion will really be able to stir you when the times get tough, in a tough conversation.
What I look at when I think about Players For Transformation and what that means is like I look at myself, an opportunity that I’ve gotten through hockey and the fact that opportunity only came as a result of my having gone to a private school in primary school and to be able to give that opportunity to someone else, to be able to extend that sort of privilege or chance at life really is a massive thing.
Having been part of those type of conversations I can sort of lean on that experience and that discussion that I’ve had, that tough conversation that I’ve had, I can lean on in other spheres of my life. When I have boardroom meetings and I’m having to put my foot down or I’m speaking to a CFO of a listed company and it’s a little bit stressful, I’m like yes, but I have had this type of conversation many a time before and something I’m passionate about, something I can speak to, something that I know and I know well and I can sort of use that experience to navigate our way through those type of conversations.
Who are the people that have inspired you to get to where you are today?
This is always a tough question because I like to think I draw inspiration from moments or people’s experiences more than people specifically and my mom’s played a huge part in shaping me as a person and my high school coach, Mrs Johnson, was a huge part of like. It’s also weird. I mean I’m 10 years out of school now, but I always still refer to her as a huge part of my hockey journey because I think, outside of my primary school coaches, she was probably the first person who really saw something in me and invested time, effort, money that she maybe didn’t need to, but she saw something in me and she was like I’m gonna better this girl and I think if we had more people who do that for our woman athletes, we could get our women’s sport a lot further in this country.
I struggle to pinpoint outside of my mom and my coach, I struggle to pinpoint a specific person, but I think I’m inspired by specific moments that that people, young people, put out there.
Phumelela, It’s finally Olympic Year. Covid is making way. A little bit of a different prospect – no fans being allowed. Another tough journey for your team in trying to get support, funding, sponsorship to get to the showpiece event.
Yes, Kass… I think the last the last 12 months have been crazy, just from a people perspective, from a world perspective, and even more so, from an athlete’s perspective. Just the amount of uncertainty. You have this big thing that you dream about from when you were a child that – is it going to happen, is it not? Should I really be concerned about this when there are people literally losing lives, losing family, losing loved ones out there?
It’s been a very weird space to navigate, but I think anyone who’s involved in any sort of system to get to the Olympics is incredibly excited about the opportunity. Like you said, it’s going to be quite different than what we used to, and it’s maybe not the big or crowd filled event that that it has been in the past. But ask anyone who’s involved, the Olympics is the Olympics, whether there’s 50,000 supporters or there’s just your coach and an assistant coach on the side of the field. To be able to take part in something like this should be a huge privilege and I think we are all really, really excited about it.
In a nutshell, if you had to paint a picture to someone who doesn’t understand the landscape of women’s hockey, what do you have to do to get to the Olympics?
You have to take part in an interprovincial tournament, so you must be part of a club in one of the provinces in South Africa and you must then go to trials and be selected to play for provincial side. From the provincial side, you must be selected by selectors at the tournament to say listen, we’ve seen something in you, we are interested in… It’s basically like scouting. We are interested in seeing you in a different environment, so outside of your team, your comfort zone. You then are selected to go to a training camp. We had a big training camp in December. I think there were about 46 or 47 of us that took part in that. Training camp is where the whole squad regroups. But in between all of that, there is national training in different provinces. There are training programs that you have to subscribe to and you submit fitness results at the end of the month.
So we started… I mean with Covid and everything with our reset button, it probably happened around August. And then we submitted our first set of tests and results at the end of September, so September, October, November and then a December camp and before that camp we had a selection process and testing process again. If you pass a fitness test, you are eligible to trial at the camp and then it’s been centralized programs now.
Every second weekend, this squad regroups and we train together in Johannesburg at St. Stithians and that’s just from a South African hockey selection perspective.
As a South African hockey team, we still needed to… in 2019 we had to go to Valencia in Spain to take part in a world hockey tournament and we needed to rank a certain position and then after that we had to take part in the Africa Cup, which was held in Stellenbosch, also in 2019. We won that, quite happy to do that. I think we beat Ghana in the final 4-0 if I’m not mistaken and then yeah, that’s South African hockey’s qualification for the Olympics. But like I said, there’s a whole selection process that goes on. We are currently a 26 player squad that’s actually going to be cut down to 21 players in the next couple of days and then going forward we just we keep cutting until we get the final 16 which will be announced around May if I am not mistaken.
And the irony of it all is that even when you get to that squad, if you have no funding, you may end up not going to the Olympics.
That’s the really, really tough pill to swallow for all of us. South African hockey is an amateur sport, we actually have a big base in the country. There’s a lot of like school players. I think school players are biggest base for South African hockey players. But obviously the further out you go because we’re not professional, the more the numbers sort of reduce. We currently have a sponsor Super Group. But with the last 12 months of Covid, the company itself is struggling so that’s been a little bit difficult.
At the moment, we need to try and raise around R45,000 per player in order to get us to the Olympics. Hopefully will be able to get a sponsor that will be involved with the whole team and sort of assist us with the Olympic journey. But it is a real possibility that if you don’t have funding, even if you are the final 16, you may not be able to go to the Olympics because it is self-funded at the moment.
Let’s flip the script and say we need to raise R45,000 Rand per player, South Africa. How can we do it? How can you inspire South Africans to support this team because it has been a journey and you’ve worked so very hard to get here? Each and everyone of you… not just over the past year or even two years. But since the very beginning when you chose hockey.
100%! I think if you look at all of our players that are currently in our squad, it’s players that have played from as young as six years old. I started playing when I was 10. There’s some players who started a little bit after that, but for most of us we started playing from a very young age. The Olympics is something we’ve dreamed about from when we were little girls. I remember 2008 Olympics, It’s the first hockey match I watched on TV. That was in the era of Marsha Marescia (Cox), Tarryn Bright, were playing. So my point is, at the time, I never realistically thought I would be eligible to be in an Olympic team, but it’s something that I was inspired by from way back then already.
The most inspiring thing about the South African women’s hockey team, is seeing how we have literally been defying all odds to be able to compete at an international level. If you look at our team, there’s a lot of students. I can think of Ontathile Zulu, she’s a third year varsity student, Nomnikelo Veto just finished at Wits. We’ve got young players just coming in to the set up. Hannah Pierce is actually based in the US and she’s taken a semester off in order to try and be part of this program and give yourself a best chance to make this Olympic side.
The point that I make is that its not just older players like myself who are working, there is also a lot of varsity students. There are a lot of people that are self-employed. Celia Evans runs her own coaching clinics around the country. I mean with Covid, we haven’t been able to coach any players. No one’s been able to really participate in any sport. Her source of income has sort of been put aside. We are group of young women in South Africa trying to achieve and attain our biggest dreams while also trying to live a life outside of the sport.
And it’s an incredibly difficult thing to try wrap your head around when you think of the fact that I mean our first match at the Olympics is scheduled to be against the Dutch and they have a fully funded full-time program. All they do is play hockey. They get paid to play hockey and we need to try to compete with that. If you look at what we do as athletes today and you compare it to what our counterparts are doing at an international level, we definitely are in the more difficult position, but I don’t think it has stopped any of us from dreaming and believing that we can get ourselves to the Olympics and achieve really big things. If you look at how much has been invested, both on and off the field in the last 12 months, you’ll see that we are definitely a very, very passionate group of young woman.
Well, I’m so inspired because I’ve walked a long journey with South African women’s hockey. I’ve seen over the years just how challenging it’s been. But also, as you said, you’ve overcome adversity to get here. Away from the Olympics, is there a program over the next couple of years that if a sponsor was watching this interview would say, well, not just the Olympics, but perhaps there’s an opportunity for me to get involved in women’s hockey. What’s to come aside from the Olympics?
So, so that’s the biggest thing at the moment, that because of the way that the sponsorship is centered around the Olympics, the South African Olympic team will have one team sponsor. So as hockey we specifically can’t sell anything for this coming tournament. But next year is a massive year from a hockey perspective. We’ve got the Africa Cup qualifier which is to qualify us for the World Cup. There’s also the Commonwealth Games, so that’s three massive events that sponsors can look to get involved with. So when you look at the next four months from a sponsorship perspective, there might not be a lot of a lot that South African women’s hockey can give the sponsors, but literally as soon as the Olympics are over we have a big 18 months ahead of us that we can really reap the rewards of. So yes the Olympics are the biggest funding that we need at the moment. But sponsors need to be aware that the benefits of that will be reaped literally. You can go crazy over the next 18 months following the Olympics.
Well, you know, if ever you retire from hockey, because I know it’s gonna come, you certainly have a role to play. Perhaps as CEO of South African hockey. I think the experience you are picking up along the journey is just going to be amazing. I can’t wait to be part of your journey going forward, but all I want to say is you started playing hockey at the age of 10. You made your debut in 2012. You sitting here in 2021 with a couple of great goals that you can achieve. What is the one thing Phumelela Mbande wants to still achieve in hockey and you know that if you put your best foot forward as you’ve done with your studies. And your hockey, you can achieve it.
This is massive! There’s so much that I want, not just for myself, but for my team. Like I said, we are such a passionate young group of players, and I wish I could explain to people out there how much goes on behind the scenes to getting us to where we currently are, and I think if I were to think of a specific goal that I want to attain for myself, I think if I make the Olympic team firstly, to really put in a good performance to give us a fighting chance as South African women’s hockey.
In the past, we’ve had a good group of players and I think things haven’t always gone our way to get us to where we trying to get to it. If I could get us through, as a goalkeeper, I think this is a little bit in my control, but if I could get us a good enough performance to get us to a quarterfinal at the Olympics, the massive dream, and when you look at our rankings and where we as South African hockey versus the other people that are in our pool, I think it’s a massive reach. But I definitely don’t think it’s unattainable. I’ve seen what we can achieve as this other women’s hockey team. I’ve seen the talent that we have and I think it’s something that we can definitely get to.
Right now, that is my biggest dream as an individual, but I think it’s obviously something that I need to attain with my team and then, overall, in the next maybe two or three years looking at what’s happening now and coming off World Cup next year, if I could. If we, as a team could push South African hockey rankings at back to 12th place, maybe not in the next three years, but definitely in the next five years. I think that would be a massive dream. In the past, we’ve always wanted to make top ten, but I think that the ripple effect of not going to the 2016 Olympics and the lack of international competition in the last couple of years has sort of pushed down. And I think we currently ranked 16th.
And so I don’t think 12 is unattainable. I just think there’s a lot of work that needs to go into that. So I think those are my two biggest dreams – quarterfinals at an Olympics now and then top 12 in the next three or four years. That would be really great.
Well, I think you set it up for the sponsors. You’ve put a really good pitch forward about what’s to come and it’s all about performances in the end. Funding is important, but we’ve seen with the Momentum Proteas – beating India in India. Those kind of big performances… it’s when sponsors can’t ignore you. You have our full support at gsport and I appreciate how you support at gsport, so thank you very much and I look forward to South Africa backing your girls.
Thank you so much, Kass! I think anyone in the South African women’s sporting industry is fully aware of just how much work gsport does for women in sport. I’ve been following the Momentum Proteas through gsport actually. It’s been really, really nice seeing how their story has played out. I think back to the netball girls two years ago. Things really started turning around for them, once they started getting a little bit more financial backing and it just goes to show that it literally just takes someone in corporate putting their hand up and saying these are the woman I’m gonna back and I think it would be really great to see South African hockey have something like that happen to us. Thank you so much for the coverage that you always give us women in sport and I really hope that we’ll be able to get something from this campaign of ours.
Phumelela Mbande, she’s the inspirational South African women’s hockey goalkeeper joining us on this Big Interview. Catch it all across @gsport4girls!