It seems fitting to start with the ‘goosebumps’ moment. So often we hear of what it is like to step out onto the pitch at a World Cup and sing the national anthem from an athlete’s point of view; it is rare to hear it from a sports scientist. The U17 Women’s Football World Cup in Uruguay was that moment for Minky Tshabalala.
In 2015, she wrote in her diary that she wanted to work for the South African National Team, so when that moment came, she was holding back tears. “It was such a pinch-me moment. All the long hours, all the weekends I couldn’t spend with friends, it was all worth it.”
It has been something that Minky had been working towards for years. Playing cricket for twelve years of her childhood, Minky was then selected to play for her province at U19 level, until an unfortunate back injury ended the dream. Minky debated a career in medicine, but under her mum’s advice – “whenever there’s a cricket game on, you’d rather watch cricket than study!” – she chose sports science instead.
Minky highlights how the first few years proved difficult: “there was a lot of volunteering; my paycheck was non-existent. I waited until 2013 for my first proper contract.” But since then, her career has skyrocketed. Minky worked as the University of Pretoria Football Club’s Head of Sports Science and what began as just a three-month stint in football, turned into nine.
Since 2017, Minky has been the Sports Science Unit Manager at the University of Johannesburg, providing services to seven high-performance codes, including athletics, rugby, and basketball. Her role involves overseeing the sports science division, daily meetings with individual coaches, as well as ensuring the sports scientist and managers are providing the right services to athletes.
Minky’s experience at the university has broadened her knowledge working with different sports, ranging from helping athletes prepare for the World Cup and international tournaments, to making the University’s netball team “the fittest they’d ever been.” Any sports that were struggling, Minky was sent to rescue; in just four weeks under Minky’s guidance, the volleyball team beat the back to back champions in Varsity, and played their first final in 2017.
Giving advice for the future generation, Minky notes “don’t come into the industry thinking you’ll be working with the Springboks right away. Graft the hours, and make a name for yourself.” In a small industry, she highlights that “your work track record will speak for itself”.
It’s a mantra she passes onto her students, and with great success; one of her Work Integrated Learning program students Sibusiso Makhula was selected to assist the University of Johannesburg football team as their sports scientist at a soccer tournament in Korea, and from there, progressed to landing an internship at Orlando Pirates football club, and was chosen to study in China.
Minky has a strong message for women entering the industry; “you need to be goal-oriented. It’s not going to be easy. I come in, I do my job. I don’t take things personally”. She highlights that unfortunately, there are still some comments batted around that will deter other women from entering but emphasises how to not allow anyone to make you inferior: “don’t give anyone a reason to question your abilities.”
Standing up to coaches is a challenge, but also a necessity. Minky recalls one instance where she had to put forward a case for the coach to not play one of his favourite athletes, as she medically could not clear him and had the full backing of medical staff. Although it may have caused a small rift at the time, it ultimately gained his full respect.
She talks about getting buy-in from coaches as being challenging at times, but it is all about “allowing the coach to be open-minded”. It may be that coaches won’t buy the periodisation model, but ultimately it is about being open-minded, and learning from the coach too. “Coach Simphiwe Dludlu was open minded – we shared information and what she expected from me. It’s a two-way partnership.”
Something Minky learned from the renowned Coach Thabo Senong (2x World Cup coach), was “don’t get comfortable and think you know enough.” He came into the U17 Women’s team as the Technical Director, but Minky recalls being surprised by his very humble presence. “Instead of sitting with the coach, he sat with the junior members of the sports science team. He was incredibly open-minded, giving you a platform and allowing you to speak.”
Minky credits Dr. Pathokuhle Zondi as not just a mentor, but a woman who inspires her greatly in sport, because of the struggles she overcame to be the best. “I used to go into her office and cry when the guys just wouldn’t listen to me.” Zondi, the Chief Medical Officer, and now CEO of the Sports Institute of South Africa, was able to give Minky straightforward advice: “you have to take everything they give to you, and give it back to them.” Zondi assured Minky that she was cut out for it, and capable of anything she put her mind to.
Minky’s boss at the University of Johannesburg, Ms. Nomsa Mahlangu, is the Sporting Director and another female in sport who Minky admires greatly; “she has done so much in football – she became the first female Federation of Africa University Sports President. Her journey is inspiring.”
With over nine years of experience in football performance, including becoming the Sports Scientist for the U17 and U20 Women’s National Teams at the South African Football Federation, Minky’s mantra is “someone world-class can still be a student.” And whilst she may be known as “the football girl” in South Africa, what a world-class “football girl” she is.