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#26 BIG DREAMS VS UNREALISTIC DREAMS - with Rito Hlungwani

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.


It makes a lot of sense. If you equip players to solve problems, you equip them for life. M. Scott Peck who wrote "The road less travelled", said that life is a series of problems, and we need the discipline to solve the problems of life. So what else do you think transfers well (to life outside of rugby)?


Another life skill that players learn is punctuality. If you're five minutes early, you're late. So they learn that time is money. You must arrive on time and be prepared.


What impact does it have that players are given a lot of structure in rugby? They're told where to be, when to be there, and what to do. So what role do you think the ability to structure your day has on being successful in life outside of rugby?


There is a structured and unstructured part of rugby. Sometimes the coach tells you, this is what needs to happen. Or you’re asked a question, and then we agree on it. Then there’s the part you can’t predict but try to prepare for. No coach can tell you what’s going to happen. So when a player leaves the world of rugby and enters the working/business world, I think they get that there are structured and unstructured parts.


What about attitude? When we worked together at the Western Province Rugby Institute, there were a lot of different attitudes. Some players ignored guidelines, and others stuck to them. Now that you work with the best players, can you link what you've seen in the younger players to what you've seen with the successful players?


The players I currently coach worked their way through the institute. So I can compare a player four years ago, with where he is now. You need good role models in that system. Barcelona calls them “cultural architects”. For example, if you get to the HPC early on a Monday morning, whether it’s before or after a game, Ruan Nel will always be there way before everyone. When we get there, he has already trained and done the hard work on his own, to do more with the team later. So he’s a role model for youngsters that come in. He follows a strict diet. He leads the way without putting pressure on the younger players. Having players like that in the system makes it easy. Young players see Siya’s always running in front. Pieter-Steph is a hard trainer and always gives his best. So the young players see what world-class players go through to get where they are. It is true that a few guys get through only on talent and have a work ethic that’s not so great. They arrive five minutes before training starts and still perform on a Saturday.


Do you feel that those players get to the highest level in the game?


Very few of them do. Eddie Jones will tell you about Joe Roff. It’s one of the best players he’s coached in the world, but he’s lazy and late for meetings. He says that the less he trains, the lazier he becomes, the better he plays. So there are exceptions like that.


Maybe that's what we see from people like Dan Carter, who's got that talent, or Johnny Wilkinson. They were some of the best players in the world for a long time because they had the right mindset.


You obviously try to solve problems in the game. But what about dialogue in terms of the bonding of the team, the brotherhood and the connection of the team? Do you feel that your approach helps to facilitate the connection between players?


When I was a player, we believed that the bond between players developed off the field when we were having drinks together, things like that. But it’s much bigger. As mentioned earlier, if you create a safe space where a young player can approach an older player and ask for help, that’s where connections and friendships grow. And they really learn from each other both ways, because they become vulnerable and honest. I’ve seen some great things in the training. So being vulnerable and honest helps to create that safety.


What are some of your aspirations in terms of your life? You're a coach and I assume you love influencing people in this way. What will make you feel that you've been successful, left your mark, done something great?


Outside of the game, I’m happy when players exit my coaching and are better human beings.


How do you feel that you've got the influence to do that? Is it only through that dialogue, or how do you approach your one-on-one connection with the players?


I’m always interested in what players plan on doing after rugby, so I ask them about that. Regardless of their age, I’ll ask them if they’re prepared for it, because it can be tough. By asking the question, I then start to guide with the bit of experience I have. Or I’ll lead them to a person who might assist them.


I was lucky enough to have a degree in quantity surveying before I started playing professional rugby. But as I’ve mentioned, I didn’t feel prepared for life outside of rugby. So I try to give players advice. In all rugby environments, there’s an off day in the week. I always tell the players that I should have used those days to go and get some work experience. There are a lot of company owners that watch rugby and would be willing to teach you something. So I tell them to utilise their time properly and prepare well. In this way, I build relationships with the players, because it creates a dialogue where they want to know more. I made an attempt to do Forex trading several years ago. The players are very interested in that. So it helps me to build relationships and connect with the players.


What would be your no.1 advice for youngsters, guys in high school aspiring to become professional rugby players?


The biggest piece of advice I want to give players is to dream, dream, dream. You can never get into trouble for dreaming. It’s free. Dream and then chase your dreams with all you have. When I look at where I am today, I still don’t know how I got here. But when I was in high school, I wasn’t afraid to dream. To dream of being a Stormers coach in 10th grade seems like wanting to grow wings and fly. It’s crazy. There are things I didn’t achieve in my life. But the ability to dream takes you to levels you could never imagine. If you don’t get to where you want to be, you’ll still get close enough. I wanted to be a Springbok, but I did manage to become a Stormer. I chased the dream like there’s no tomorrow. And I’m happy with who I am now.


What's the difference for you between dreaming big and dreaming unrealistically?


You dream unrealistically when you’re not prepared to put in the work. When you dream big, you can sort of see the way. It’s like the unstructured part of the game. There will be rolling stones coming down the mountain as you try to climb it. Things will change. You’ll get injured. As long as you sort of see the path and know that you have to work hard, you’re not dreaming unrealistically.


What's your big dream now?


Having done a lot of research and watched a lot of sport, I dream of creating or being part of a dynasty that would win multiple championships, a diverse environment that everyone wants to come and learn from. When you mix different cultures, you get something amazing. And the world needs to see that. So the dream is to create a dynasty where people from all around the world want to come and learn about how we work together despite our differences.


I'm sure you'll get there. Watching you work with youngsters, I have seen how honest, humble and curious you are. When we got a chance, you were always asking me questions. I felt honoured to have been able to share what little I know to help you on your path. So my last question to you is, what do you feel is your superpower?


When you meet Francois, you come out knowing yourself a bit better. He asks provocative questions, the right questions. I learned that from him and I’m still trying to improve that.


I would say the superpower I’d love to have is making people feel better about themselves, to make them feel happy.


 

Books mentioned in this episode can be found on Amazon by following the links below:




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