Cool under pressure

The heat rising off the players and spectators inside the Mandeville Sports Centre makes the scorching 32-degrees outside seem like a cool summer’s breeze. Fifty minutes have passed since a heartfelt rendition of Nkosi Sikelele Africa. Forty-five since Impi declared the Lions war on its opponents, who wasted no time launching the first attack. Twenty-eight since the Eagles threw the first basket of 2019’s SuperSport Wheelchair basketball final, to take a lead they’d cling on to, all the way through to the fourth quarter.

In the final quarter the match continues to deliver nail-biting, wheels-in-the-air action. Heads swivel from side to side, as spectators try keep up with players propelling wheelchairs and chasing the ball, at rubber-burning speed, across the court. Baskets are followed by fouls, followed by penalties, followed by more falls, and fouls, followed by superbly executed penalty shots.

With about five minutes of play remaining, it feels like a lifetime since Kirloskar Lions’ head coach Lydia (Lids) Dumond mouthed “Relax. No pressure.” to her players on the field.

With just under three minutes, the Diesel Electric Services Eagles find themselves down to four men (due to foul play) and for the first time in this match the Lions lead by a mere point. The score is 46:45 and jubilant Lions’ fans can almost taste victory as they challenge their team to put the match to bed with an impassioned Siyolal siyolal’embheden, an extract of a Zulu pop song turned sporting anthem (which translates to “let’s go sleep on the bed”).

With two minutes and fifty-two seconds left on the clock, Eagles’ head coach, Anele Kledi, calls time out, and SuperSport’s live coverage of the event zooms in for a close up of the Lions’ team talk.

Lids’ final pre-match advice to the team was to not put pressure on themselves. That, and no unnecessary fouls. “Go out there, have fun. And let’s show them why the Lions have won this league, three times in a row.” Now, she crouches down in the middle of her pride, forgetting that she is wired for live television, and that an entire nation could be eavesdropping on her final battle prep. Her demeanour clearly communicates that she intends sending a team that’s on fire, back onto the court.

“They are four. We are five.” She holds out four fingers to drive home what the current advantage is, her tone and posture testimony to this petite thirty-six year old’s fighting spirit. “We pressurise the kak out of them now. We win the ball. Eight seconds. We do it again.” 

Her short sharp instructions are reinforced by her hand gestures. “We win the ball. Eight seconds. WE DO IT EVERY TIME.” The pumped-up Lions clap hands before joining fists to close their circle and cry: “One. Two. Three. LIONS!”

What follows is a mix of masterfully executed set routines, with each basket scored celebrated to the beat of a frenzied Come on everybody let’s do the conga, accompanied by a small band of Jenga drummers and encouraging spectators. Everyone is sweating, either from physical or physiological exertion, or because they underestimated the heat and arrived under prepared.

As the score board shows 51:47 Lids finally smiles. It’s her first of the game and softens the tired, dark shadows under her eyes. Tension slowly evaporates as she relaxes her taut frame, clad in a white Kirloskar branded T-shirt, three quarter blue jeans and white trainers. The pragmatic brunette, with her long hair in a trademark side-parting, is even showing signs of enjoying herself.

This is what the African continent’s first female head coach of a men’s national team looks like, when things are going her way.

Head coach Lids with other members of the AmaWheelaBoys management team, including (from left to right) Lethabo Molobi (medical), Gerhard Smith (head of delegation) and assistant coach, Anele Kledi .

Anele, her counterpart (and often adversary in finals) stands on his side-line, his composure not revealing what must be an undesirable turn of events. It is only his sweat-beaded brow, revealed by the ever-present TV camera, that hints at his inner turmoil. His elbows rest on his crutches, hands on hips. He doesn’t lose his cool, but having come this close and losing the lead through fouls, must be a bitter pill to swallow.

The final whistle of the SuperSport Wheelchair Basketball Final, held on 26 October 2019, blows on a score of 55:51. The Lions are victorious for the fourth year running, and the sports centre erupts as celebrations raise temperatures by a further five degrees.

The prize giving and post-match interviews are concluded in a blink of an eye, and Lids and Anele embrace, commiserating over his loss and the costly fouls. There will be another stand-off between two of their teams, in two short weeks’ time. However, these two are not always on opposing sides of the court – they are the coaching duo tasked with taking Sasol’s AmaWheelaBoys through to the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

Both coaches have day jobs – Lids is a sergeant in the police force and Anele a financial officer at a bank. Coaching wheelchair basketball is just a hobby for them. Albeit one where players and coaches take competition very seriously, as well as having to sign contracts and commit to performance deliverables. It seems like an inordinate amount of commitment for a casual pastime. What keeps them motivated? And, in practice, what does it take, to coach an amateur sports teams that plays according to professional rules? 

Coaches come to the sport in various ways. Some have themselves been players. Some have family members who play. Lids’ husband Cecil broke his back in a mining accident. A few years later she met him in a bar, they had a little too much to drink, and he kissed her. “Oh shit, what now!?” went through her mind, but she liked him. A lot. And pursued him, until he succumbed to her charms. And once a couple, she looked for hobbies they could pursue together, encouraging him to join the Lions, their local wheelchair basketball team.

It wasn’t long before Cecil was selected for the AmaWheelaBoys. Lids also moved through the ranks, starting as spectator, moral supporter and water girl. She eventually became the Lions assistant coach, then the Lions head coach, the North West Province’s head coach, and eventually in April 2018 was named the Sasol’s AmaWheelaBoys head coach.

Marius Koenig, the Kirloskar Lions chairman says that she always expressed curiosity and was researching the game long before she started completing her coaching accreditations. “We’re incredibly proud of her. I must admit, I’m afraid to lose Lydia as it will be difficult to replace her – not just from the coaching perspective but it’s obvious that the players trust and respect her so much. That in my mind is one of the most important things about a coach – they must have the respect of the player.” 

In addition to commanding respect, another deliverable of fitting the coaching profile is contending with the constant presence of a TV camera, which can be especially daunting in a live game. “You get used to it, but I’m Afrikaans and I also usually swear a lot, so having a camera over my shoulder did make me nervous at first,” says Lids. “I don’t think SuperSport used my post-match interviews for the first year – not because I was swearing, but just because I went blank and couldn’t give strong answers. It’s easier today.” 

She and Cecil usually watch the games when they are repeated on SuperSport, and in addition to tactics and game play, she also gets to see how she comes across on camera. “This sport, at this level in South Africa, would definitely not exist if it wasn’t for our sponsors,” says Lids. “It’s important that we acknowledge them as much as we can, and when I first started, I was a mess. I’m sure people must see the difference between then and now.”

Anele feels that having the camera nearby means you really have to watch your volume and your mouth. He says that it has actually improved his communication with players, both during and outside of games, as it has made him even more aware of how he addresses different situations. “If we are abusive to the players it doesn’t get through to them. It’s also more empowering to a player if one sees someone doing something wrong and encourages them to get it right next time, and off camera.”

A coach will still need more than respect, a good TV presence and the ability to communicate to go far. It’s vitally important that they know both their own and their players’ strengths and limitations. Anele has Cerebral Palsy Dysplasia, which affects his lower body. He is a self-confessed better coach than he has ever been a player and says, with a big grin: “I do the instructing much better than the actioning and have told my players to do as I say, and not as I ever did on the court!” His coaching style (he coaches Eagles, Gauteng Provincial Team, National Under 23s, and is assistant coach for the AmaWheelaBoys) is to nurture and develop individual strengths that will make a big difference for the team. 

In wheelchair basketball the court and basket are exactly the same as in the running version. However, there are three major considerations that differentiate it from running basketball: the inability of the wheelchairs to move from side-to-side; the different disabilities, abilities and strengths of the individual players on court; and the challenge of propelling forward, while managing the ball with your free hand.

Wheelchairs are not able to move from side to side, therefore revealing the athletes travel direction and limits the element of surprise. Each chair is custom-made for its player to caters for their specific disability and to support their being as agile as possible. For example, someone who has no legs will require a very short seat, and someone who has legs, will require a long seat. The same applies to the height of the back of the chair, and all chairs have straps to secure their players.

Players are classified according to their disabilities and assigned points, between 0 and 4,5. Amputees are stronger than paraplegics. A broken back (with none or little core function) means you’re a low pointer (zero to 2,5), and if you suffered from polio or are an amputee, you are a high-pointer. A coach is allowed to field five players at a time, with a cumulative total of 14 points. This makes planning, and knowing your players stamina, an essential aspect of being a national coach.

Lids is known for pushing her players hard, demanding they be fit, know their chair skills and stick to a game plan. “My team knows that when we’re on court, they are there to do a job. If I say do this, you don’t give me a story or an excuse.” Her training sessions are much harder and more physical than the actual games usually are, but she says this prepares her team for different scenarios on court. “Many of our international opponents play high-paced, professional wheelchair basketball and regularly compete with other international teams. We don’t have that exposure in South Africa as it’s bloody expensive to travel. But my team knows that when they are on court, they are there to do a job. We are fast, and we defend. We are aggressive and loud and don’t play soft basketball.”

She hasn’t always been this feisty and nearly quit the team in April 2019 when South Africa lost to Great Britain (a team, that by the way is the current World Champion, has very tall players and plays professionally) by 104 points in Belgium. After that game Lids set the AmaWheelaBoys a target of achieving ten points for each period. And then, moving forward, to improve on just that.

Anele is very aware that basketball is a hobby for most of his players and training often comprises of just a few hours a week. “Basketball is a sport, rather than how we make a living, and if we try to emulate the international professionals, we’ll never catch up.” His goal is to work on his team’s strengths and make the most of training time, while encouraging individual athletes to develop their strengths and abilities on court.

AmaWheelaBoys player Jack Mokgosi is classified as a short 4.5. Tall high-pointers, with height and agility advantages, are usually selected for the team and Jack made the cut due his all-round skills. He credits his coaches for encouraging him to develop his wheelchair skills, stamina and speed as well as at shooting three-pointers. “Today my game is more than shooting and I will work on what my coaches need me to work on, in order to contribute to the team.”

Working as a unit is probably the most important foundation of any team sport, and a successful wheelchair basketball team is no different. Combining forward movement and ball control can leave a player vulnerable to attack, as the ball defender has a distinct mobility advantage. “A lot is required of players in order for the game to open up, and to move the chairs across the court,” says Anele. His organised approach to training transcribes into smoothly leveraged self-discipline and meticulous attention to detail (probably a result of his work as a financial officer). He makes notes after each game and is often tasked by Lids to introduce new shooting and lay up drills to the training programmes.

No-one seems to take issue with being trained by a woman, although Lids did feel that initially her capabilities were under scrutiny. “In the beginning, especially when I took over the National Team it was difficult. I think they thought, ag, it’s Lydia, she’s still learning, she doesn’t know.” They had to grow as a team and as she puts it “find one another”. It didn’t take long before her highly-intense yet approachable coaching style gained traction and people began lining up to play for the Lions.

Cecil Dumond, Sasol AmaWheelaBoys captain, mentor to younger players and husband to the coach, says that Lids’ style and approach is very different to previous coaches. “Lydia has more of an open relationship with the players, than previous coaches. In fact, both she and Anele are trying very different approaches, and at the moment it’s working.” Cecil continues saying that there is a thin line between being a coach and a friend, however, the previous approach of not mingling and investing in players, had not yielded the desired game results. This combined approach seems to work, as players want to play for their coaches. 

There is a healthy self-belief apparent in the national players, which will most certainly contribute to future games. “It’s a great experience for us players to have switched to a woman coach,” says Shane Williams, Lions and AmaWheelaBoys player. “If you know the game, it’s not a big difference whether you’re male or female. Under Lydia as coach, we’re helping each other more and playing is a joy.”

In spite of the game bringing a lot of joy, this joy does come at a cost, including sacrificing a large part, if not most, of your free time. Weekends are dedicated to games; most teams train two to three nights during the week and a lot of holiday time is sacrificed for international training camps or big games. “As a police employee the government give you half of your leave days for sport – so if I go away for five days, they give two and I take three,” says Lids, who sadly had to miss a training opportunity with a visiting US coach in late October, as she had run out of annual leave. “I honestly never knew it would be so much work balancing the Lions, the National Team and my work commitments. The struggle is real!”

Anele and Lids on their first plane ride ever, with AmaWheelaBoys team captain Cecil Dumond, an already seasoned traveller.

There’s no letting up, as the rest of 2019 and early 2020 is filled with back-to-back training camps and competitions, in preparation for Tokyo. On 16 November, a few hours after Lid’s North West team beat Anele’s Gauteng to scoop the coveted Vodacom Cup (and the R100 000 prize money), the AmaWheelaBoys hopped on a plane to Thailand for a tri-nations challenge.

The coaching duo are used to the travelling now, but their very first international coaching gig saw them embark on a plane, for the very first time ever, for a flight to Dubai. “I took Calmettes, sleeping tablets and alcohol for my nerves, and didn’t move AT ALL throughout that whole flight – not even to go to the toilet,” says Lids. Anele tells the story much the same way, however, mentions that sitting next to Lids eased some of his tension, as she was by far the more nervous one.

They’ve since become seasoned travellers and this event will see them playing New Zealand and Thailand’s National Teams and will serve as a final training camp before 2020’s Paralympic Qualifiers, that will take place at the Mandeville Sports Centre in March next year.

It is essential for the team to perform at the event in order to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. When asked what her goal right now is, Lids says she wants to prove a point. “All of our contracts state that if we go to the qualifiers and don’t qualify, then Wheelchair Basketball South Africa has the right to replace us. I want to go the Paralympics next year. And I want to compete, not just be there.”

Our two coaches are ambitious and have earned respect. They are cool on camera. They know when to turn the heat up on court and are committed to their training repertoires. They are keeping the joy in the game and work to their players strengths and weaknesses. What more can Anele and Lids do to prepare our AmaWheelaBoys for this massive event? 

They both agree: Practice. Practice. And more practice. And if it’s up to Lids, pressure the kak out of the competition once they are there.

 

 

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