Updated: Oct 13, 2021

Molweni! Welcome to another episode of Fresh Perspective where we’ll gain the perspective of a friend that I made a few years ago. Rito Hlungwani. Rito, welcome to Fresh Perspective. I look forward to sharing your perspective with everyone here today.

Thanks, Francois, I’m really excited. Really looking forward to doing this podcast with you.

First question: what is it that you do, Rito?

The easiest way to put it, is I’m a rugby coach. Fortunate enough to be coaching the Stormers currently.

What does it mean to be a coach? What does a coach do?

If you go into different environments, you realise that coaching can be done in several different ways. I coach by using collaborative sessions where I facilitate discussions, asking questions and coming up with ideas together with the players. So it’s an interactive environment where there’s a common goal, and the goal is reached through collaboration.

I strongly believe that two minds are better than one. The next person could know more than me. Or, having a dialogue with them can help me expand my ideas and my knowledge. It could spark something in my mind. So I enjoy asking people questions and hearing their perspectives because it helps me to grow.

You’re always (metaphorically) throwing the ball back to the players, saying, what did you notice? What did you see? How do you think we can fix or improve that?

Putting the ball in someone else’s court by asking them questions, helps them to become a better problem-solver. When playing rugby, you can’t predict what’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen. So the aim of coaching the players is to equip them with problem-solving skills to deal with any situation on the field. The more this is practised, the quicker and better the players get with solving problems. It also results in them helping each other, coaching one another on the field. It makes them feel safe so that they become comfortable with receiving (constructive) criticism and feedback from each other because they recognise that they want the same thing.

How did you develop that style of coaching?

When I was a player myself, none of the coaches used this strategy. I remember being coached by Nick Mallet and thinking about how smart he was. He broke the game down and simplified everything, but by the end of the meeting, the only person who had said anything was him. At that stage, we thought it was great, that he was amazing. But years later, I wondered if we learned as much as we could have from all the things that he said. We didn’t know the steps that he took to develop what he taught us.

Over many years of doing research and meeting different people, I learned that there are better ways of coaching. I’m still far from where I want to be, but every day with a new book, podcasts that I listen to, or people I meet, I refine that process.

Who are some of the big influencers that helped you to develop your coaching style, this dialogue approach?

At the moment I’m a big fan of Steve Kerr who coaches the Golden State Warriors. He played (basketball) with Michael Jordan. He was a very good player. He understands that players sometimes know more than he does because they’re the ones playing the game. So I try to learn from him. There’s also Phil Jackson, an NBA coach, and Arsène Wenger from Arsenal. Those are just a few of the names that have helped me develop this philosophy.

I watched "The Last Dance" and I read Michael Jordan's autobiography as well. The mindset and approach of a player like Michael Jordan and a coach like Phil Jackson are very interesting. It’s about helping players centre themselves and being present in the moment.

To latch onto that approach of yours: how do you feel players adapt to it? As you said, you weren't coached that way. Now the players actually have a coach that keeps passing the ball to them, asking them what they think. Do they adapt quickly, or does it take quite a while to create that kind of culture?

I currently work with very experienced players. One is the best player in the world, the other has 100 Super-Rugby caps. Another one is the Springbok captain. So it would be wrong of me to tell them, “this is what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it”. They appreciate me acknowledging that they could have answers without it being necessary for me to intervene. My biggest challenge is to get everyone to participate when I’m in a room with for instance the best player in the world and a 19-year old fresh out of high school. The 19-year old can also contribute. He sees it differently. I call it my Billy Elliot moment when the young guys can contribute just as much as the older boys.

Some guys are used to being told what to do, and it takes a bit longer to draw information from them. I know it’s going well when I’m starting to ask deep, complex questions and I keep getting answers. The dialogue shifts away from me and to the players. It’s like they forget that there’s a coach present. It’s a moment in coaching that I really enjoy.

Where do you see your place to bring insight? You're studying the mindset of different coaches and players. How do you take that and find a way to deposit that knowledge, perspective, and mindset into the players?

At some stage, if you ask questions the whole time, some players wonder if you actually know the answers. Most of the time, I know what the end product should look like in my head, and I try to drive the players in that direction. Sometimes I totally change direction. But there are times where I have to show them that I know my work. Instead of creating a dialogue, I’ll stand in front and try to blow their mind the same way Nick Mallet did with me when I was a player. I show them that we see the same picture.

So you don't discard one for the other. You keep both ways of coaching and guiding towards a goal, towards change, and growth. It builds trust. If they see you know what you're talking about and you're confident in what you're sharing with them, it builds trust. Also, that you believe in them and want to equip them to be problem-solvers.

So a balance between these two parts of coaching is needed, depending on the environment you’re in. But in my current environment, the discussions and questions bear more fruit than when I stand in front and tell players things they already know.

What do you think determines a player's success? What do you think causes one player to grow rapidly but another one to grow more slowly?

What differentiates a player as great, is work ethic. Those that are willing to put in a bit extra.

Few players have been great without being hard workers.

How do the players influence you as a person? How does your role in trying to guide these players to achieve a common goal, affect you and impact your life?

Sometimes I come out of a meeting and wonder if I inspire the players as much as they inspire me with their ideas. I’m always vulnerable in front of them and I let them know that I don’t know it all, but in having discussions we’ll find the best solutions. The value of their ideas vindicates my approach of us listening to each other.

How do you see people connecting what they learn in rugby, and what it means to perform at a high level, to performing well and being successful in life in life? Is it challenging for a player? Challenging for a coach to teach? Applying the principles used in rugby to life?

There are parts of the game that prepare you for life outside of rugby, but when I transitioned from being a player to being a quantity surveyor, I wasn’t well prepared. And I think that it’s because the environment I had been in, didn’t engage with me as much as I should have been engaged with. I wasn’t asked provocative questions and such. Now that I’m driving this process of helping players solve problems, it doesn’t matter where they go. They should be able to look at a situation and say, there’s a solution. How do I get to it?

If players had to walk away with one lesson from my coaching, it should be that it’s okay to ask questions of the next person. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” Creating a mindset of problem-solving should prepare players for life outside of the game.