Seasoned Sport Physiotherapist Sandhya Silal has contributed immensely to the well-being of athletes over the past decade and is now focused on changing the lives of para-athletes in the country.
The Cape Town-based Team SA physio has travelled across the globe working with athletes at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2019 FINA World Championships, 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the 2016 Rio Olympics.
In 2019, Silal opened her own practice, focusing primarily in orthopaedics and sports physio where she works with runners, swimmers and para-athletes.
She also gives back, working in the Khayelitsha community, helping their para-volleyball team – iKapa Storm.
Speaking with Babsie Kutwana, Silal shares details of her evolving career journey and reveals the importance of athletes having a medical team.
Sandhya, thank you for chatting to us! For those who do not know you, can you briefly tell us about yourself, the work you do and what led you to sports physiotherapy?
I graduated with a B. Physiotherapy from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2001 and I then stumbled into sports after working in hospital for a few years and the rest is history.
I was introduced to sports physiotherapy by my colleague, Neil Viranna, when I assisted in his physiotherapy practice. My first tour was in 2007 with the South African women’s Volleyball team. We had a training camp in Thailand and I loved the adrenaline, rush of being on the side of the field and I thought, “Hey, this is something I can do!.”
This lead me to Cape Town where I completed a Master’s in Exercise and Sports Physiotherapy at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and continued working in the field of sports at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa
You started your practice in March 2019, what inspired you to open your own practice?
After the Olympics in 2016, I assisted in setting up a sports institute in Bangalore, India. On returning home, the next big step was to set up my own practice and build from there. We have been open for 2 years now and it is a busy practice with a special interest in orthopaedic and sports injuries focusing on mobility and rehabilitation.
Our patients range from the elite athlete to the weekend warrior like you and me! In the last two/three years, my focus has shifted to working in para-sports. In 2019 I began working with a para-volleyball team, i-Kapa Storm based in Khayelitsha and assisted the South African para-volleyball team. I have also worked with several para-athletes and para-swimmers.
What have been some of the challenges you faced during the Covid-19 pandemic to keep the practice running?
Like most of my colleagues working in out-patient practices, I did take a 3 week break during the hard lockdown but then started with tele-health sessions as advised by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA).
We were able to consult remotely through Zoom, Skype and WhatsApp calling which was a tremendous help for our patients. Capetonians love the outdoors and exercising so when we were confined to our homes during the hard lockdown, people had to get creative with workouts and staying fit. People were then forced to be innovative within the home and use what they had, like using 5-litre bottles and baked bean cans, for strength workouts!
Through tele-health we were able to connect and keep our patients moving.” My motto in the practice is ‘Just Keep Moving.’
The pandemic highlighted the importance of movement. We definitely took for granted the everyday walking at work – in and around the office or just going to the shops. Stretching and mobility became key during those lockdown days.
As you have extensive experience working with Team SA at various international events, will you be part of the Olympics/Paralympics medical team? Are there any athletes that you are currently working with?
As you are aware, the Tokyo Games were postponed last year due to COVID-19 and are scheduled for later this year. I am fortunate to have been selected as a member on the SA Paralympic medical team.
I am currently working with Hilton Langenhoven a three-time Paralympic champion who is training to qualify for his fifth Paralympics Games. We have been working together for 6 years now and travelled with him and the SA para-athletics team to World Championships.
South African Fencer, Giselle Vicatos is another athlete at the practice hoping to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
We would imagine that there is a different level of preparation for each athlete. What goes into creating tailor made plans for each athlete?
Yes, each athlete is unique and managed differently according to their goals, their sports specific demands and what training phase they are in.
A good understanding of the definition of physiotherapy will assist:
“Physiotherapy is a branch of rehabilitative health that is concerned with the promotion of mobility, functional ability, quality of life and movement through examination, evaluation, diagnosis and physical intervention.”
In sports, we assist in the prevention of injuries through maintaining mobility and strength, and in the event of an injury we provide injury management through evaluation, treatment and rehabilitation to influencing recovery and ultimately leading to performance enhancement in collaboration with the multidisciplinary team.
How would you best describe the importance of the medical team for the athletes?
The support of the medical team to any elite athlete is vital. In an ideal world it would be great to have an athlete travel with a doctor, a physio, a biokineticist and a dietician, however due to financial constraints this is always not possible.
When on tour with a sports team, the medical team are working long before the tour has begun. Communication prior to the games is made with the host country to ensure what medical services and equipment will be available to the team. In some instances, the medical team arrives prior to the team to ensure medical facility preparations are in order so the athletes can “hit the ground running” when they arrive.
The medical team ensures athletes are screened and game ready, that they travel well, especially during long haul flights, provide daily care to athletes in times of illness, injury and provide emotional support as well, on those tough days.
During the wins and the losses, athletes learn to lean on their team mates and also know that the medical team is there to provide support too. Those behind the scenes, moments of celebrations and encouragement is the most memorable part of my job, knowing that in some way, you assisted in contributing to the team.
What would be your advice to an aspiring sport physiotherapist?
Never stop learning – continue with post-graduate studies, attend the talks, read the articles, keep asking the difficult questions and discuss with colleagues. The learning never stops – to this day, my Clinical Sports medicine book and anatomy app are open on my desk for consultation!
Aspiring physios: start saying “Yes” to sporting opportunities – be it assisting at a small local running club marathon or shadowing a physiotherapist on the field on match day. Create opportunities for you to gain experience as we all did, learning from colleagues. I would happily have young physiotherapists, students and scholars shadow at the practice.
Physiotherapy is physically demanding with long hours but perseverance, dedication and commitment to my work and profession, has been instrumental is my successful career.
Women before us fought for equal rights to education and job opportunities among many other demands and today we are reaping the benefits of their struggle. I encourage aspiring physiotherapists, especially women, to take up the challenge and choose a career in sports and applaud my colleagues who are on that path, for so boldly representing women in a field where we were once barred from entering.
Photo Caption: Sandhya Silal Practice owner with a special interest in Sports Physiotherapy. Photo credit Instagram.