When Wayde van Niekerk broke the world record in the 400 meters at the Olympic Games in Rio, he did it with the help of his coach, 74-year-old Anna Botha. With all the well-known coaches in track and field and the glitz and glamour surrounding the 400 meter race, one would think van Niekerk would have a high profile coach to get where he is today.
He began training with Botha when he enrolled at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein back in 2012. Coach Botha has been the head track coach there since 1990 and was a former sprinter and long jumper. When she began to work with van Nierkerk she immediately switched his focus from the 200 meter to the 400 meter event. This switch was made to protect him from persistent injuries.
One would think Coach Botha’s coaching philosophy would be mind-shattering since she was a huge part of his success since 2012. The 74-year-old coach’s philosophy is all about discipline and hard work, mixed with some laughter. Van Niekerk is very thankful and grateful to Coach Botha for constantly pushing him to reach levels he did not think were possible. She is known to treat her athletes as family, which has allowed her to earn their trust. “She doesn’t see us as athletes or people; she sees us as her children,” said van Niekerk.
Coach Botha is able to use her motherly, great-grandmotherly, and pure love for her athletes to mold them into world class athletes. When being questioned about the strategy for the race her simple response was, “We didn’t really talk,” she said, adding, “The more empty the mind is the more focused he is on what he has to do.”
Coach Botha has shown that coupling discipline with a caring approach is a good prescription for success. Coaches have to be willing to step up and discipline their athletes when needed and also being willing to show them their caring side at times. What a great example this has been for those who may be already in the coaching profession and those who would like to become part of the profession.
By Dr. Bret Simmermacher
Dr. Simmermacher is the Chair of Sports Coaching at the United States Sports Academy, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org