Olympic Legend Penny Heyns: “The Most Critical Component of Leadership is Humility and Good Sportsmanship”

One of South Africa’s most decorated Olympians Penny Heyns tells gsport Senior Writer Lonwabo Nkohla that the most critical component of leadership is humility and good sportsmanship. The double Olympian encourages everyone to view pressure as privilege, a lesson not only applicable in sport. Photo: All images supplied

The name Penny Heyns will forever be etched in South Africa’s history as one of – if not foremost, among South African swimmers of all time. 

Heyns’ ground-breaking performances in the early 90s and 2000s put her name as well as the rainbow nations’ flag on the map, shattering records and staking her claim as one to watch as early on as Barcelona in 1992, when she was the youngest team member in the country’s Olympic team. 

Just four years later in the 1996 Atlanta Games, she became the only woman in Olympic history to win both the 100 and 200m breaststroke events, to which she added a bronze in Sydney 2000.

Heyns still is the only Breaststroke swimmer, male or female, in the history of swimming to break long course world records in all three possible distances, namely the 50m, the 100m and 200m. These achievements are only but a few mentions on her list of milestones, it would take a book to cover all.

Today, the inaugural gsport Hall of Fame winner is a formidable coach, businesswoman, and highly sought-after speaker. Heyns says to be the best in her game at the peak of her career, the intrinsic motivation had to come from a deeper place, and she believes that leadership starts with personal responsibility.

“I think one of the huge contributing factors was that I realised that first of all, I have to swim for the right reasons. I also had to travel to the US and swim on scholarship there, and it was a lot of sacrifices. There was a degree of taking personal responsibility and, I think, leading by example.”

In a team set-up she adds that sometimes the best way to support and be a good team member is by ticking all the boxes you need to tick personally, while performing to the best of your ability.

“When you talk about leadership with regards to the team, the best way is to focus on the things that I could do well, and to do it to the best of my ability. I wasn’t a “Ra-Ra” person, as far as team spirit goes, and all the cheering. I felt like if I do that, I’m not going to have what it takes for my race, so let me rather quietly support those around me, and race to the best of my ability.

“So, leadership should be by example, actions speak louder than words.”

The role of captain or team leader can be tricky, because an athlete still needs to balance performance (individual and team) while simultaneously providing the support as a captain. Juggling the two needs to be seamless. The last thing an athlete wants is for their performance and results to be affected by over-extending themselves while carrying out their duties as skipper.

“In any team set up, you need to know what your strength is, what your role is, and to play to that strength. In individual swimming, perhaps it is a little easier in the sense that, whether you make or break, it comes down to me. I’m the one that lives with the outcome. I don’t have to worry about disappointing someone else. Whereas if I’m in a team event, if I slip up, the team also pays the price.”

Nowadays, any athlete across the globe would pay top dollar to be on the books of the legendary Penny Heyns as their coach. A coach who is also an inspirational speaker, you get the best of many worlds. 

As she wears her coach’s hat, according to the first non-track and field female athlete to be inducted into the Africa Sports Hall of Fame, Heyns says that creating more meaningful relationships with an athlete is paramount, while also finding ways to give them confidence in the pool. 

“When I approach the coaching aspect, I’m not really thinking of leadership. What I am thinking about is the individual I’m working with. What’s really important, is how do you use that platform to make a lasting impact in that person’s life, to make them successful in life, not just as an athlete per se.”

Heyns emphasises that the old adage “tear you down, to build you up” is a no-go zone for her. 

“If I have a swimmer in the water for the first time, I’ll take a short video, then I’ll pull them out the water and I’ll always start with telling them what they’ve been doing really well, even if it’s smallest thing. That’s the way to start off, because unfortunately a lot of coaches and maybe even teachers think it’s their job – like in the army – to break you down first, and then to build you up, which is utter rubbish!

“You want to help that person, make them feel confident, feel good about something. After that you can start look at areas that need improvement.”

In 2006, the Springs-born Heyns became the inaugural inductee into the South African Sports Hall of Fame, and in May 2007 she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida, US. 

During those days, one can argue that being a high-performing athlete had one less major burden: that of Social Media. 

Today, an athlete has to focus on being number one, while also ensuring that their brand is attractive to major brands to secure sponsorship deals. That however, comes with us as the public, scrutinising each and every move, through each and every post. How does that impact athletes today? 

Heyns dives in, “Given the younger generation being the selfie generation and the social media generation, they don’t know anything different. I understand that the more likes you get, it’s going to bode well for you when you approach sponsors. However, unfortunately, that has nurtured a lot of arrogance.

“If you look at the real champions out there, they are the ones that are saying less. They are just doing the job.”

The concept of competing with yourself versus competing against others has been a raging debate amongst ‘thought leaders’. On the one hand, instead of comparing yourself to the standards and performance of others, you should be comparing yourself to your own standards and performance. 

On the other, if you’re not the best, then you must be competing against others who are better than you, to meet and beat those standards, and be the best in the game. 

But in terms of sportsmanship and ethical conduct, how should these concepts be navigated, especially for athletes chasing glory at the highest level? 

The retired swimming star says: “The most important aspect of sport is nurturing good sportsmanship. I grew up with two young brothers.”

“We were taught it’s not medals that matter. It’s not records that matter. It’s good sportsmanship. It’s how you used your platform. It’s the character you have and ultimately how you contribute to others. In focusing on this winning, winning, winning, that’s where the ugliness comes out.”

As we all navigate life in our different fields from being an athlete, businesswoman, corporate queen, leadership qualities can set you apart, allow you to grow and become a valuable employee, teammate or director. For women though, it may not be as easy as that. You could be the best candidate in your office, but lose out on promotion because of your gender. Heyns’ approach to the gender inequalities that we still face today is pragmatic.

“I don’t think we, as women, should compete with the men. I think they have their role, and we have ours, and maybe the leadership styles are different. Also keeping in mind that females need a different kind of leadership. The tough love approach in a leadership sense and a coaching sense to men is different to what you need to do for females.”

If you are a young aspiring leader aiming for that corner office or on the field of play you are eyeing the captains armband, the double Olympic champion says remain humble. 

“Understand that your position of leadership is a privilege. Understand that true leadership is by example and the greatest leaders are the ones who develop the people in their team, who help those people become their best.”

Preparations for the 2024 Olympic Games are in full swing. Athletes are either training for the games or still working on securing qualification points or times. The best to have done it in the world of swimming advises, control the controllable. 

“I was at my best when my approach to the Olympics was, it’s just another competition. That is the secret in terms of sports psychology. 

“You can only control that which you can control.”

“And unfortunately, the bigger the competition, the more the distractions, the more the pressure. A lot of people don’t like the pressure. If you look at some of the top athletes and what they’ve said about pressure, the view is that pressure is a privilege.”


Photo Caption: One of South Africa’s most decorated Olympians Penny Heyns tells gsport Senior Writer Lonwabo Nkohla that the most critical component of leadership is humility and good sportsmanship. The double Olympian encourages everyone to view pressure as privilege, a lesson not only applicable in sport. Photo: All images supplied

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