Former South African women’s hockey coach, Sheldron Rostron, is using his years of experience in the sport to power his role at university level, where he plans to keep effecting change.
Rostron, now the North West University’s (NWU) Director of Sport, wants to rid sport of politics to allow athletes to play and participate without bias or prejudice, and to be able to express their passion on a global platform.
His journey in SA women’s hockey saw him first brought into the national structure as a specialist trainer and goalkeeper coach in 2010 under head coach Giles Bonnet. During that time, he performed various roles including stand-in assistant coach and team manager.
In 2015, he was appointed head coach of the South African Women’s Hockey Team on a three-and-a-half-year deal, and his achievements started to roll in.
Two years into his tenure, Rostron made history, completing a remarkable double when he led both the Women’s and Men’s teams to the African Cup of Nations titles, a rare double feat by a coach.
Rostron admits that his various roles taught him to appreciate and respect every individual’s role within a team, and encouraged him to fight for women to achieve their sporting dreams.
As an advocate for women’s sport, he is now using his power at NWU to ensure that female athletes are afforded opportunities from university level.
Speaking with Celine Abrahams, Rostron gives insight into where his love for hockey began and what working with women has taught him about himself.
Sheldon, thank you so much for taking time out to chat! When one mentions your name, we think of your remarkable feat guiding both the women’s and men’s hockey teams to Africa Cup of Nations titles. Please tell us about your journey with the national sides.
“I would like to believe as a head coach that I was able to bring together a unique group of individuals to achieve some great achievements and goals.” – North West University’s Director of Sport, Sheldon Rostron
I’ve been fortunate to be part of the national set up for over eight years in a multitude of roles. Each of those roles taught me a lot about the inner workings of a team, as well as to respect and appreciate every individual’s role within a team, and I would like to believe as a head coach that I was able to bring together a unique group of individuals to achieve some great achievements and goals.
I was approached to assist in helping the men’s team qualify and initially said no, my reasoning was I didn’t want the women’s team to feel neglected, or that their coach was now going to jump ship when we had already achieved so much in 2017. It took some convincing – not that I didn’t want to coach the men, but the task at hand had a lot of risk involved, and this was the only and final chance for the men to qualify.
I remember saying yes, after a lot of deliberation with some of the leaders in the teams, staff and other senior staff members of the organisation, however three seconds later thinking, “What have you done?”
I remember having several calls and meetings with staff to establish roles, responsibilities and how we were going to make this happen, I can honestly say the belief, trust and responsibility made bearable by every staff member for both the Men’s and Women’s teams, they honestly understood the responsibility and all dove into their jobs, allowing me to just focus on coaching and getting the jobs done.
We didn’t have a lot of preparation, and I remember being very tense before our departure to Egypt. I wanted to do everything to be as prepared as possible, but extenuating circumstances and riots in Egypt changed our plans on several occasions. I remember meeting with the leadership group of the men and them saying – “You focus on coaching – we will be ready, don’t worry about the team, don’t worry about discipline or any matters except getting us to the World Cup… We know what we are here for and we know what we have to do…”
This was an extremely mature and positive approach and I knew we had what we needed to get the job done. I remember having a meeting to explain how I wanted to play and the style of play, and what we would need to win the event. I presented all the ideas and concepts and when I looked in their faces I thought – “Oh No! I’ve lost them…!”
I remember the next few hours being led with many questions and real interest in how I came up with this and why we were going to play this way and how we would get to achieve this in 4/5 sessions. I knew they were hooked, and all I had to do was convince them this was the way. I knew most of them from always being around them and chatting and sharing thoughts and ideas around many a field, but never in my right mind did I think I would coach both the teams at the same time.
Things went by in a flash. I remember sleeping about three hours every night, preparing and making sure that we had all of the details right and ready. I was so fortunate to have one of my closest friends and analysts by my side, just feeding me info left, right and center, the staff just clicked across the men and women’s set up, and we would meet daily just to ensure everyone was happy, on track and feeling good. The coaches, trainers, medical staff and managers were continuously busy for the next thing.
It was a hard event as I would be missing my son’s first birthday… something I think every father dread’s saying! I remember thinking the only way I could make this okay is if I came home successful. The teams could see I was down, and somehow found out that this was eating away at me… They arranged a small birthday celebration on his birthday and ensured I went home with some gifts for him. We felt like family, everyone looking out for each other and ensuring we achieved our goals.
The final was something special, running from the women’s game after we had won the gold medal, I had 2-3 minutes to celebrate, and my colleagues then switched gear, and whisked me away to the men’s final. I was nervous, I was anxious, and I think I prayed several times during that game…
It was neck and neck! I remember having to jump between players and tactics to stay fresh and stay sharp, as it was going to be about who works the hardest and longest, and we had to resort to periods of trying to starve them ball.
The match was either going to end in a draw or something needed to happen, I remember Taine Paton taking to the field and moments later burying the goal to win the match, and you could just feel the Egyptians sink, knowing we had the game, but they didn’t go down without a fight and pushed one last time without succeeding.
This event is something I will always remember and cherish, not for the wins, but the camaraderie, empathy and true character of being a South African was embraced, channeled and collectively achieved.
What was it like coaching the women’s team as compared to the men’s side and, what were the differences?
I have always enjoyed coaching women. I have a lot of respect and admiration for the way they push themselves and I think I enjoy the aspect of helping them reach their potential and more.
“I enjoy working with women as they have taught me a lot about myself as well as they have shaped me to the coach and individual I am today.” – Rostron speaks on becoming an improved coach and individual having worked with the South African Women’s Hockey team.
I can honestly say that I am more emotionally intelligent, open, forthcoming and analytical than ever before.
People tend to think that as a coach you are out to get them or to find all the faults in them, this may be true by the nature of the job, and there have been times where I have had to wear a tough face when all I wanted to do is cry with them. No matter the individual or the persons whom I have coached, I have always had a responsibility and personal connection. They have taught me to be closer to people, genuine with people and that despite the responsibility as a coach, you need to be there for them as a family member.
To be honest, I didn’t really experience differences and I imagine that in team sports challenges and aspects of coaching a team are the same. I think I’ve just been doing it for so long that I didn’t see differences.
Personally, how were you able to deal with the challenges of having to ensure that both national teams make an impact on a global platform?
I will be honest in saying that I don’t have that feeling when I coach… Coaching as much as it is can drain you, I have always felt most alive coaching. In my last few years I have come to learn that it’s the complexity and desire to push others to excel that has me hooked.
I have a loving and supportive family, that has always let me reach my dreams and strive for what I want to achieve. My wife is a successful international umpire and we support each other’s careers fully, and have been fortunate to travel together and see things through sport that we would never be afforded otherwise.
I am religious and I do believe that I have been put in certain situations for certain reasons. Life has just always worked out for me and despite good or bad, lessons are the gifts that we receive daily, and if we learn and if we follow our faith that the successes will come as a result of the grace that we receive from above.
Let’s chat more about you. Please tell us where your love for sports began.
Funny enough I come from a family where on one side was very sporty, and on the other not so sporty.
I had always wanted to participate in sport and played an array of different sports, some that I excelled at and others that I just partook in for fun. I think I saw it as a good excuse not to do homework!
I fell in love with hockey at the age of 13 where I was first introduced to the sport at Central Primary through a teacher that wanted to start the sport there. Later in high school this developed into an obsession created by the passion of other coaches and individuals who believed in me.
It gave me the opportunity to study, it introduced me to my wife, and it has changed my life. It’s given me opportunities and introduced me to people that I thought I would never meet and has also challenged me in ways that has shaped me and instilled a desire to learn.
I’m truly grateful to all those teachers, coaches, friends, family, staff and athletes that have been with me on my journey as they have all left something behind that will stay with me.
Despite having a love for sport, did you have another career path in mind?
This is always an interesting one… I wanted to be a Graphic Designer until I was turned down at the university I went to. I was limited to some of the choices I could make, and I remember making my decision of what I wanted to study on the day that we had to attend the opening of university for that year.
It was my father that said study something that allows you to do your passion, but will also open roads to change later when you want. I ended up studying BCom Sports Management giving me the best of both worlds.
“To be honest I’m glad I could focus on my sports career and playing for the university and provincially and later this would spark my coaching career.” – Rostron speaks on his decision to study BCom Sports Management, later paving the way for a career as a coach.
I think I ended up right where I was supposed to be!
What are your highlights of your career so far?
There are few, but I will mention my top 5:
- Attending an Olympics
- Attending World Cups and Commonwealth Games
- Double Golds at African Qualifier with the Men and Women’s Teams
- World League on home soil in Johannesburg
- Last match at the World Cup against Argentina (1-1)
Please tell us about your position at North West University…
I have been employed as the Director of Sport at the North West University in Potchefstroom since 2018 and was part of the reason for me stepping down as national team coach.
I oversee 36 different sporting codes from high performance, competitive, recreational and wellness at the Potchefstroom Campus.
Our department serves over 11600 students at the university, and provides opportunities not only for the university but also schools, the province and local community. We are focused on developing better athletes, better people and striving to be the best in sport (holistically and competitively).
I have been fortunate to be considered for this position and I have been blessed with a great management staff and coaching staff that are driven, passionate and eager to develop.
How are you using your position to develop women’s sport from university level?
We continue to push the boundaries and development of women’s sport on a university level and in support of provincial and national structures.
I personally am an advocate for women’s sport and women in sport, we may not be able to cater for every sport within the sporting world, but we go out of our way to support our students and staff in any manner possible.
We have grown and continue to develop opportunities for women at NWU. It is part of our new strategy and unfortunately 2020 and Covid-19 has dampened some of our plans, but we look forward to some new developments in 2021.
We hope that we can achieve more at USSA level to ensure more opportunities and sports are being developed for women going forward.
Generally, what are your thoughts on women’s sport in the country and how can we improve it?
I believe that it is a systemic problem that is still bound by beliefs and opinions of women in sport. I have enjoyed watching other women’s sports such as cricket, rugby 7’s and netball over the past few years, and believe that they have shattered some of these ideological beliefs and applaud them for this.
They have become leaders and idols to many girls that I know in our community, and it is important that they continue pushing the boundaries.
I do believe that it is also a lack of opportunities at lower levels that are also a factor. I’m talking about non-traditional women’s sports and inclusion of these sports at schools and the little club levels that we still have. Breaking the stigmas at school will help change society and the culture of women in sport.
There is currently a crowd funding initiative to get the SA Women’s Hockey team to the Tokyo Olympics. What are your thoughts on a national side still having to run campaigns to ensure that there is money to get to a global event?
It is a pity and it is something that has been around for too long. It’s nothing new, I think it has just become too easy to expect the players and staff to keep forking out money for their passion and duty to our country.
“I plead with those who can and who are in any small manner involved with hockey and any other sport for that matter to continue supporting our national and Olympic teams.” – Rostron shares his thoughts on the current crowdfunding to assist the SA Women’s Hockey team to make it to the Tokyo Olympics.
Sport is becoming elitist, non-inclusive and taking away opportunity. My fear is that Covid-19 will challenge corporates ability to sponsor and aid them to get to Tokyo.
I plead with those who can and who are in any small manner involved with hockey and any other sport for that matter to continue supporting our national and Olympic teams. To take a leap and invest in our sportsmen and sportswomen who are out there every day working to keep us there as a nation and who continue to bestow us with passion, pride, positivity and entertainment.
To our leaders I plead and beg that they reconsider, restructure and reposition their strategies and processes to look after our athletes and focus on sport as a tool to unite and move our nation forward. It will take bold steps and measures and expertise to redesign school, rural, club and national structures so that we can embrace and enhance the talents we have.
What is your greatest ambition?
Being able to snap my fingers and making every sports person’s goals and ambitions a reality in this country.
I wish we could get rid sport of politics, agendas and just allow athletes to play and participate without bias or prejudices – to just be free and express their passion, celebrate their talent and unite through sport.
I would like to see that world before I die or at least see change – I will help any sport, federation or national structure for free if we could just make this our single prerogative and mandate.
Photo 1 caption: Former Hockey SA Head Coach Sheldon Rostron has a dream of making every sports person’s goals and ambitions a reality. Photo: © Terry February Photography www.safieldhockey.co.za
Photo 2 caption: The Director of Sport at the North West University in Potchefstroom since 2018, Rostron always participated in sport – both with keen interest and also just for fun. Photo: Supplied
Photo 3 caption: “I have always enjoyed coaching women. I have a lot of respect and admiration for the way they push themselves and I think I enjoy the aspect of helping them reach their potential and more.” Photo: Manuel Quelmadelos Alonso / Getty Images
Photo 4 caption: Rostron rates having seen both national teams to gold at the Africa qualifiers among his top 5 accomplishments to date. Photo: Supplied