#10: Having the Guts to Fail with Vera Pauw

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Meet inspirational football coach VERA PAUW – a woman who has been honoured by the International Olympic Committee for her contribution to creating equal opportunities for women in sport. Vera reveals how, by handing over ownership and responsibility to players, she enables players to step outside their comfort zone to discover that failure is part of success, and that through sport they can learn not just skills for sport but also skills for life. Vera Pauw is an outstanding example of how ‘a good coach can change a game and a great coach can change a life.’ ~John Wooden.


  • Coaching
  • Sport
  • Football
  • Performance
  • Competence
  • Confidence
  • Life Skills
  • Inclusivity
  • Equal Opportunities
  • Human Rights
  • Values


The Frailty Myth by Colette Dowling


Hidden Figures directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder. Based on the book ‘Hidden Figures’ written by Margot Lee Shetterly.


‘Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression’ 
~ Nelson Mandela


Read Full Transcript

LW Podcast Episode 10

Welcome to The LifeWise Show where we explore the things in life that make you feel truly alive.

Today I have the pleasure of speaking with one of the most inspirational sports coaches I have ever met, Vera Pauw from the Netherlands; and working in Sports Medicine, I’ve worked with quite a few!

Vera has been honoured by the International Olympic Committee for her contribution to the national and international development of women’s sport, and was placed on the ‘Colourful List’ for her contribution to supporting diversity in society. She received the highest award from the Dutch Football Association, the KNVB at the first European Championships that women were allowed to play in, for her contribution to the game of football in general and women’s football in particular. These are just 3 awards of so many, that honour her work in using sport as a tool to empower girls and women all over the world.

You see, Vera as a world class football coach does not train boys or girls, black or white, able or disabled – she trains people and potential and teaches them not just skills to succeed at their sport, but skills to succeed in life.

I met Vera at The Inside Game coaching conference at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne where we were both presenting. I was transfixed by the story she shared – how she took on the challenge to transform the lives of 11 women, from 8 different tribes in South Africa, who had learnt to play football on the streets, and in 1.5 years enabled them to qualify for the Olympics.

We agreed we should meet to explore how we could share her wealth of wisdom and her valuable expertise with a wider audience and to reveal how it is possible to unlock human potential by building winning teams and unleashing the power of play.

Tania Cotton: Vera, a very good morning to you.

Vera Pauw: Good morning.

Tania: So since we met at the Inside Game in 2016 I already feel as if we’ve been on the most extraordinary adventure together and we haven’t even made a film yet.

Vera: Such a shame, yes, but I feel also that we know each other very well since then.
Tania: It’s been a privilege; we’ve had a lot of fun. As the saying goes it’s the journey that’s important and not just the destination. Let’s just begin with your journey because it’s fair to say that you were born believing in equal opportunity, please share with us what was special about your entrance into the world.
Vera: I was born as one of triplets with two brothers and there weren’t any girls in our neighbourhood of my age. I have an older sister, 3½ years older, but for a kid 3½ years is massive, she was my hero but we didn’t play with each other, or hardly. I played together with, of course, my brothers of the same age and I grew up as Vera, I didn’t grow up as a girl, so I was part of the group in which I was the only girl. That means that I grew up like a boy with the values of boys and with the demands of boys.
That made a huge difference because I felt the difference when I got to secondary school, or high school, whichever you call it, and getting there it was suddenly very clear that boys and girls had to behave differently and had to feel differently and there were different demands on the boys and girls in friendships but also in the performances at school.
Tania: Do you think this gender bias since it is prevalent in schools begins early on and if we were playing together and more integrated in these early years that we would learn better how to communicate and collaborate with each other as well as enhancing our movement and life skills?
Vera: Yes, but that is for both boys and girls I think. You get a more diverse spectrum of how you can be actually, who you can be, because for boys it’s often, of course, the same thing but in the other direction. If they show compassion they are called names and if a girl shows directness she is also called names. It’s very nice to realise that the word ‘bitch’ has no male equivalent.
Vera: when I do my work people often don’t understand the difference between having to be firm for the good of the player, for the good of the game. When a woman does that it’s often called that you are a bitch because you have to be friends with everybody. Whereas boys learn to be product related, to find your aim and go for it and be clear what you want.
For men, if he were to do the same thing or say the same thing, he would be professional, he would know what he wants, he would drive players to higher heights. Whereas when I have a conflict with a player, and I’ll be clear about why and what behaviour has to be corrected, it’s like, “It needs to be fun also so why do you behave like that?” To the extreme because men can do anything they want, and players will still accept it.
Also, the unaccepted behaviour of male coaches are accepted by girls because that’s the norm in which we grow up, that whatever a male coach is doing that is part of your growing up. Whereas as a female coach you’re always walking on eggs, we say in Dutch, I don’t know if that’s also an English expression, but you always have to take care, you have to show compassion, you have to show that you care and only if you take care of all the communication aspects then you can be clear about what you expect from them or what needs to be corrected.
That’s very tiring because me growing up as a boy it is so natural that if I have a professional conflict or even a professional discussion that after that discussion everything is over and you’re just friends again. Whereas for male coaches that’s the same thing and everybody expects that and accepts it.
So, if girls and boys are playing together, it shows out of research and especially mixed gender football, it shows that they have a very, how do you say, they have a more diverse view on the capacities of each other and they don’t see each other anymore as a group but they see each other as an individual who is capable of one thing and maybe not so good in another thing. It’s then not connected with being a boy or a girl and it works both sides. Also the girls playing mixed gender football have a more diverse view on the capacities of boys and the boys have a more diverse view on the capacities of girls.
That in itself brings girls to higher heights because then they are free to find their own limits and in our growing up we are not free to find our borders, to find what we are capable of and not capable of.
So we presume very early that if a girl has tried something it’s already good enough she’s tried and, “She’s a girl so it might be too much to ask,” whereas boys have to try and try and try again even if it’s from daddy or from mummy or from friends until he’s capable to do it, and then he gets compliments.
So a girl gets lots of compliments by trying and a boy gets only the compliments when he succeeds and he’s encouraged to keep on training and keep on trying until he succeeds. That in itself brings a completely different idea of the girls themselves about themselves because the girls playing in girls only sport say literally the boys are better than they are, even if it’s an under-12 category.
The girls who play mixed gender football recognise that they come at an age at 14, 15, 16 or 17 years old, that depends on the girl, that the boys in her team are getting stronger and faster. She recognises that that doesn’t mean that the boy is a better football player than she is, he’s just faster and stronger and that’s the moment that he needs to play against boys only and she needs to play against girls only or against boys of a lower age category but she doesn’t relate that to being a lesser football players, she’s just less strong like a tennis player, like a skater, like a runner.
So football is a tool that girls and boys find a way that they grow up in a different way. It’s funny that when girls and boys play together also the parents and the coaches and the opponents and board members and everybody who is involved start unconsciously to create a different framework of the performances of girls and boys.
Tania: Interesting. Vera, you’ve achieved many, many firsts in your life and it seems to me that you have the ability to see through the smokescreen of societal norms and to see what’s really possible and then you just make it happen. Can you talk to us about your journey from being told at school that girls don’t play football to becoming the most capped football player, man or woman, in the Netherlands?
Vera: I think that the key thing is that demands on me from my brothers stayed the same, they even said when I reached the national team, “It’s not fair, you only have to play against women, you don’t have to play against men,” so that is how equal they saw me. They thought that it would be easier for me because I grew up with them so then I had to step over to women’s sport, women’s football, and I succeeded in that. It seemed that for them there was a block to succeed and for me there was an opening because I didn’t have to play against men.
That in itself and the demands they put on me and the demands my parents put on us both, all three, not only in physical things but also in how you approach life and how you deal with each other, it was so complete an equal that that really helped me to see where society was blocking me.
During high school I was very unhappy, I was actually very down and depressed because I couldn’t do and react in a way that was me, that I had learned to be. So my answer to that was that I tried to be my sister, I thought that if I would react like my sister everything would be okay because I found every time the resistance of me reacting like me.
So that was a long period of negative but it brought me to realising that it was society that put that on me. So when I wanted to do things and I met the right people in that, that I wanted to just do what I loved and do what I liked, that in itself brought me in an environment that I could develop my capacities, I could develop my qualities and that just brought me to where I am now.
In that process, of course, I recognised every time when people were putting girls down, when people were saying that girls and boys couldn’t play with each other at an older age then 12 years, for example. I said, “I’ve always done it and I’m not a strange person I think, if I can do it others can do it as well.” So that gave me the force and the initiative to find ways and to show to people that you need to open opportunities for girls and as soon as you open the opportunities the girls will take it and the girls will develop.
So we first extended mixed gender football to 14 years old and then we did research again with the University of Utrecht, we extended it to under-16, that went very okay, then we had to extend it further because the girls were knocking on the door because they were the best of the team. So why could boys go to the next category and the girls not? So we extended to under-19, to the whole youth category. Then from amateur level we had to bring it to the whole youth category as a whole, so also at national level, because there were girls that could succeed.
To get the rule changed to get the whole youth playing we first put it into the amateur leagues but we waited until as soon as a girl would knock on the door to step up a level and had to play against professional clubs, that was the moment that we had to support her. Within one year we had it already that a girl wanted to go with her team to a higher level and the whole team could go but she not, the key thing was she was the best of the team. So the whole team was promoted but she, as best player, couldn’t go just because she had a ponytail instead of short hair.
So we encouraged her to go to court and we stopped that. because that is discrimination, that’s the outcome of the court case. So we didn’t have to fight for it, a judge did it for us, from that moment girls could play in the whole youth up to the professional level with and against boys and that is happening until the day of today.
Tania: Fantastic, goodness. You were the first Dutch woman to earn a professional football coaching diploma and went on to become one of the first women to serve on the technical committee of FIFA. Describe your very strategic and progressive journey to becoming the world class coach you are today, Vera.
Vera: I just did.
Tania: Yes, you did. Was there not a point where you said to have a grounding in physical education is important for a coach?
Vera: Yes, but I had that already at a very young age, when I had my diploma from high school I was 18 years old, I had to go to college or university, I decided to go to, let’s say, the theoretical strongest physical education study in the Netherlands because I wanted to have a very good base. From there I wanted to do my specialisations after.
So I had a line in my head how I wanted to become a coach who could oversee and understand everything and have the best base that could be. So I went to University of Physical Education first, from there I went to the Institution of Sport to specialise myself.
Until the moment I got there and people said, “But this is not possible,” because I went from higher education to a lower education in, let’s say, the sense of how it’s structured in the Netherlands. But for me I had thought that I wanted to have first the theoretical good base and then I’m going to specialise myself so that I can have more practice and I couldn’t see the logic behind first doing a specialisation at the Institution of Sport and then step over to Physical Education to then get a bigger base. You’re better doing that the other way around, first the base and then you specialise, it’s in every occupation but in sport that wasn’t the case.
So the Minister of Education had to give the permission to do that, and fortunately he did, and now they call it ‘Project Education’, so it’s now after I did it they said it’s actually a very good thing and now it’s common practice.
Tania: I think this is so important for us to understand because as I understand it from a lot of very good coaches many coaches today don’t have a grounding in physical education and that brings many problems with it.
Vera: Yes, it does because there are a lot of coaches that do not understand the base of what training does to a body, what training does to each other, what the pedagogical guidelines are, what the didactical guidelines are, the methodical guidelines are that are lying under a certain method, that you have to choose a method, that you just don’t go with every wind and go from left to right and back and forward, just whatever somebody who has studied tells you to do. That is still the case in a lot of situations, that coaches latterly tell me, “That is not my job,” if I talk about load and load ability of players, if I talk what certain training does to us, what the difference is in training women and training men and what load does to women and what load does to men.
The only thing that they see is that everywhere it’s different, that a women are an exception on the rule and so a problem on the rule. Whereas if you have a better foundation you understand that when children grow up there is a point that there are differences in our biological groundings and you need to know those things to make steps forward. Whereas a lot of coaches see women as a problem instead of the starting point.
Tania: Interesting. Speaking to Professor Anneliese Knoppers at Utrecht University who is an extremely experienced expert on gender bias and pedagogy in sport, she really opened my eyes to just how tough your journey has been and how hard you’ve had to fight to make it possible for women to play football. What for you were the biggest challenges that you’ve faced on this journey?
Vera: If I look over the whole journey then it is that I felt alone in it and my husband, Bert, he used to be in the beginning my coach before we were into a relationship, and he believed in me, he believed in what I was doing, that’s probably also why we got together in the end.
In principle I was alone in the whole journey, I had to pull the cord constantly and every time I wanted to go into a direction that the men didn’t like because they either couldn’t follow me or they didn’t understand it or they thought latterly that, “Women’s football is nice but it shouldn’t bother them,” I was the only one who could fight for it, there was nobody else supporting me but for my husband.
So, the moment he left the association, he was the technical manager of the association at that point, from that moment I was… How do you say it in English? Outlawed, is that the right word?
Tania: Yes, outlawed would be a very good word.
Vera: So everybody could say or do anything with me or about me, whatever they felt like, because I was different and I knew what I was talking about. They were not used to that because they couldn’t answer the questions that I had to them and they couldn’t follow what I was doing because that just bothered them in their daily practice for men’s football. That was very hard, that was probably the hardest part of the journey.
Tania: So really you felt compelled to leave the Netherlands for six years and all that time you were working in Scottish football?
Vera: Yes, but I was also challenged in an opportunity and that was fantastic, it was the warmest period in our lives as we see it. The problem that I got, what I’m now discussing, is after we got back I became the national coach of the Netherlands, so I was not anymore that girl who was playing around in sports development, nobody actually even knew that I did it for the men as well because my name was not put on the articles that I was writing so it didn’t bother anyone that a woman was writing it.
So I got back from Scotland and became national coach and technical director but they didn’t want to realise that because a technical direction in the Netherlands didn’t exist. So they used every opportunity to create a vibe around me that was not part of the journey, let’s say it like that.
So we became, with my staff, well our staff, it was very much a togetherness, we came on an island because nobody cared and nobody wanted to know even. Every time that we tried to connect with others they just pushed us away and everything that was about women, whatever it was, was just latterly thrown on my desk. There were moments they came into my office and then threw letters on my desk, like, “This is about women so that’s for you.”
Tania: Oh, my goodness me. So when we look at where we are now what do you feel have been the key catalysts in enabling you to break down these barriers and to build bridges in this area of women being able to participate in sport and in life?
Vera: I think the support from outside especially because people like Annelies Knoppers recognised what we were doing and the importance of it. There were the people in the university that supported us but especially the players themselves and their parents, they were so enthusiastic about the steps that we were making and the opportunities that we were creating for their daughters and for the players themselves that that support was huge. It was just the men from men’s football within the association that created this nasty environment but as soon as I stepped on the pitch I was happy and we had great fun and it was a fantastic learning environment that we could create.
we first set up in 2007 a premier league for women’s football with teams connected to senior team. Everybody was laughing about us and nobody understood why we were doing it but we managed to do it and we managed to get the clubs behind us.
We started a premier league and in 2008 we suddenly qualified for the first time every for finals. In those finals we reached the semi-finals and four minutes before the end of extra time we lost our semi-final and so it just stopped us from going to the final. But the whole country was behind us and everybody was enthusiastic and everybody loved the way that we were working and things like mixed gender football came out and the way we were together fighting for every single step to open opportunities for girls. We got such a support from outside the association and that brought the difference I think.
From there, at that moment we were so successful and the press were so behind us, that was the moment that things really, really changed into a negative and a few months later I had to resign from the association.
Tania: Oh, goodness. You’ve worked all over the world now with women’s football teams, what are some of the teams you’ve worked with?
Vera: I started with Scotland for 6 years and then 5½ years with the Netherlands, then 2 years in Russia, we went together, my husband, Bert van Lingen, was technical director of the men’s side and I was technical director of the women’s side. I still don’t know how we managed to get to that point but it was a fantastic experience, it was in the time that Russia was open and that everybody was just on the doorstep to jump into the world, let’s say it like that, so it was a very vibrant era and we loved it.
After that I went to South Africa for 2½ years and from South Africa I went back after the Olympics in 2016 because I wanted to be with my husband again, we were too far apart. I did one year in Houston with the Houston Dash, that’s a professional women’s soccer team in a professional women’s league in the United States.
Then I came back to the Netherlands again and I was asked to be advisor of Thailand and after that I became national coach of Ireland. I managed to do it in a way that my base is still the Netherlands but I’m travelling a lot to Ireland and that’s the way that we can deal with it so that we’re still together for a big part of our lives.
Tania: That’s wonderful to hear because it sounds like you’ve both had to travel a lot and at least in Russia and in Scotland you managed to be together.
Vera: Yes.
Tania: The story that captured my imagination when I first met you, you told me about how you worked with Banyana Banyana and so I’d love to just share this story a little with our listeners, how did you end up going to South Africa?
Vera: I was called by Fran Hilton-Smith, she was the technical director of South Africa, if I wanted to become the national coach. We, while being in the Netherlands, we were, until many years later, the only country who went to South Africa to play a game, South Africa always had to travel to other continents to play out of Africa but nobody ever wanted to go to South Africa. So probably because of that, probably because the hoping is that we did go and that we did play South Africa and enjoyed the culture and the country, they probably asked me for it. I stepped in and it was a great journey.
Tania: How did you set about setting Banyana Banyana up for success as a team and overturn a team culture of blame and punishment and poor training habits and even fear of failure?
Vera: The first thing that we brought in was the slogan, ‘To succeed you must have the guts to fail’ because those players had always felt failure in whatever they did in their lives. They found problems in their daily lives, to fight structure in their lives, and football could be the way out, it could be the way out in many cases, not only in a financial way, that they could earn their living from it if they would succeed. Also to learn life skills that could bring them further in the rest of their lives.
I went there completely open minded and after the first camp I must say I loved them already, such a warm climate of working, players who really wanted to make steps forward but who really took care of each other and also took care of the staff. So there was a togetherness there that I hadn’t found before yet and it was such a positive environment with all the problems that they have, it was such a positive environment.
So we started to work within the game, within football, and from there we developed everything that we had to develop.
Tania: Can you talk to us a little bit about how you began by creating a culture of trust and respect and agreeing on a set of values?
Vera: Yes, that’s what I always do, I start with that, the first session is about what we can expect from each other. For me I’m the helper and I’m the guest so it’s not when I get to a team that the team needs to turn away of their culture and their being but I look at what kind of qualities there are in the team and we try and get the best out of that and then eliminate what we’re not so good at. Within that to develop the skills and the players could develop, it’s my job to create the environment for that.
So the key thing is that players feel safe with me and with the rest of the staff and so I never accept anything else than respect for each other and honesty to each other. To be honest it can be harsh but players must know that what I say, that I will never play a game with them, so I always start with creating that environment, that they feel that I will never play games with them.
For example, when the player is not giving the best of themselves to put her on the bench and then the next game putting her in again or something like that, those techniques, there are coaches doing that. I feel that that is power abuse and I would never, ever do that.
To be honest to players and not playing games that can also be harsh. At times it is not so nice to hear but at the end, I think, we have a Dutch saying that ‘a soft doctor makes stinking wounds’ and that’s what I always keep for me in front of my eyes, that that is my task to be the doctor that they need to have and not a soft one that makes it easy for herself. Coaches who do not say the truth and who are not direct and do not say what is happening or what they think about it make it easy for themselves.
I think that if you’re honest and you’re always open but also show that it is difficult for you to say but that you have to say it that players start to understand that that’s part of the job and that they don’t take it personally
So it’s always a period that you need to get to know each other very well, girls need to trust me very well and only then can they accept that there are moments that are maybe not so nice for the good of herself or for the good of the team.
Tania: There again for me there are fundamentally two types of coaches, one based on conformity and control, based on systems of punishment and reward. The other, which I believe is your approach, of handing over ownership and responsibility to the players and inviting them to be creative within the framework of the rules and the task being set and then to understand that making mistakes is part of learning.
Vera: Yes, that’s exactly the philosophy that I carry, mistakes are part of the game but you have to have the guts to make them because otherwise you will never succeed. So I create an environment in which players can make mistakes so that they can grow. In a situation that you have the team only five days together before an international game that’s a completely different setting of course than like with Banyana Banyana, that they had many, many training camps and the majority part of the year we were together. So then you can create a long-term relationship and create an environment that players can make mistakes.
Creativity is one thing that you should never, ever stop, you should always encourage, so to get the creativity out you need to create a framework that they can do it and that they’re not vulnerable by showing their creativity. That means that you need disciplined players behind them or to cover them. So it’s a whole frame of dealing with players and dealing with the situations and setting up structures and act for them and not for myself because I’m just there to help them, I’m not there for my own success, I’m there to create opportunities for them to develop.
Tania: Something that is particularly interesting to me, when I heard how you really transformed this team of 11 women from 8 different tribes and how when you first met them they had generally poor physical condition and recurrent injuries and you didn’t ask them to train more, they actually trained less. Talk to us a little bit about that less is more philosophy and how you brought the quality of training there.
Vera: We started within a normal programme, a programme in which I thought that they could handle, but every session there were different injuries. So the first thing what I did was taking out all the faults that they made in training because I thought that was part of it, it was a little bit, but the injuries came every single session still. Some of them were severe, we even had a few cruciate ligament injuries. I always want to know when there is an injury where it’s coming from and why it’s there.
I couldn’t understand anymore because we did not overload them, we brought up the quality of the training, we shortened the training sessions and still we got injuries. A lot of people around me said, “They’re not and they have to deal with it and it’s the survival of the fittest,” and I said, “No, there’s something else behind it, there must be something else behind it.”
So I asked the doctor to have from every player their backgrounds and also the blood test and how their body was functioning and fat percentages and everything to find what is the reason and what do we do wrong, what do I do wrong. When there are injuries you as a coach does something wrong, even if you’re not conscious of it, but there is something that you do wrong.
So we found that within the organs of the players there was an average of 35% fat percentage within the organs and the players were not overweight, not at all, but the fat percentage within their organs was too high. That was actually because many of them just were in the situation that they couldn’t eat in a structured way or not eat the proper stuff. There were players afterwards, knowing that we were starting to talk, and there were players who only snacked a bit wherever they could find something because they didn’t have the money to have proper food.
Then I said, “Well, that’s the first thing that we need to take care of, whatever it takes, whatever it costs,” but even if it costs that we have to ___[00:47:46] activities but we have to find money to help the players to get in balance again, physically in balance.
So we did that with shakes, with vitamins and with a very balanced diet and also giving it to use at home and stuff. At the end, when we were going to the Olympics, the fat percentage in the organs went down to 21%, from 35% to 21%, plus they were leaner of course, and more trained.
The key thing is that their body became in balance and as soon as that was the case the injuries disappeared and the players were starting to get fitter and they could recover faster and brought in a completely different environment of training.
So from just preconditional we could then work on getting the performance higher and we did that by what you just said, it’s not about training more, it’s about training less if players are not fit enough and the moments that you train that you do everything in 100%. So what you do you do everything at the highest quality but you shorten those moments so that players can handle it.
So during the training sessions there were also a lot of moments that we were resting but the moments that we were working we were working 100%. Connected to that we did a lot of coordination and explosivity work and core stability work to create a base in which we could work for 100%. What we did at the end was that they could make more explosive actions during a game of a higher quality and they needed less rest between each explosive action so they could have more and better actions throughout the game. That was the base to connect everything and to become a team that could quality for the Olympics.
Those players were so talented, they all played on the street and they all played with boys, there were players who could really do everything with a ball and players who really could support them from behind them. As soon as we were connecting those qualities we could never see the ceiling until the last moment, even during the Olympics, every game we grew and we became better and better and better.
Although we did not succeed in the sense of going to the next round in the Olympics, it was just that little bit too early, every single game, also against the top of the world like Brazil and Sweden, we gave them a very, very good game. We deserved to go through but we were just not good enough to make the chances or to not get that one goal against. But everybody was talking about us and that in itself, we always said, “We have to go to the Olympics and we have to show the world what South Africa is about.” Then the players could get contracts and to go all over the world and earn their money with football but also create opportunities for the girls behind them who would then become Banyana Banyana players and could see and dream what their heroes would grow to.
So by the end of the project we were called ‘The Team of Hope’ and that is probably the biggest compliment that I’ve ever got.
Tania: It’s a very, very moving story, the fact that they really from not having the opportunity to be the best of themselves to be able to learn skills for sport, skills for life, qualify for the Olympics, qualify for the World Cup, but really it was about them. We talk about the real value of sport, can you talk about what are some of the things that people really overlook about sport, even to the point that sport is often perceived as a trivial pastime, just a game, something we do to have fun and get fit, yet for so many people playing football or sport is a lifeline?
Vera: Yes, but for more people than people think, and indeed for girls it’s often seen like… It’s so nice if they play and nobody puts demands on the quality of their play, in schools already the demands on sports at school for girls is so low if you compare it with the demands on sports in schools for boys. At the clubs if a girl can kick a ball 40 yards that’s already good enough where for a boy it’s a starting point.
So knowing that you can achieve so much more than you ever thought yourself that you can do is strengthening yourself already and it’s strengthening for the rest of your life. It’s also strengthening other girls in the society because they see that if you really want something you can achieve it.
Remember that I was just somebody who created opportunities for them to grow, they did it themselves, they were the ones who had to travel all over the country constantly to get to the high quality activities, they were the ones who had to find a place in their communities to be able to play sport. Some of them were in danger and had to find ways to get safe places for themselves and we helped them but they had to go through it, not me. The only thing that I could do was share my experiences, my knowledge, to use my knowledge to help them, to put them on the path and to every time open doors for them so that they could go through those doors but they were the ones who had to step through those doors.
I think that is something that people oversee quite easily because in many situations the players are more like slaves for the coach and it’s about a coach who wants to achieve. Yes, I want to achieve, also I want to perform, but I want to perform because I know that that will bring a different life for players, not for myself. Of course I’m very happy, if you see pictures of me celebrating, but there is especially celebrating because I know that that gives a different step for players.
That was the same in the Netherlands, I had an agreement with our national sports federation that if we would reach the semi-finals in 2009 that they would get a basic salary from the government because they would then be rated as ‘A’ sports people, so top level, top athletes, with a stipend from the government. So when we reached the semi-finals that was our biggest achievement because I was the only one that would know what would happen and the Minister of Sport came straight after the game in the dressing room to tell the players.
So I was so, so happy there as well, not for myself but for the players because at that point I knew now the door is open and now they will become European champions, there is an opening to go to the World Cup, to reach higher levels at the World Cup and to maybe become world champions because we have this great structure behind us with mixed gender football and with the premier league. But we had to achieve internationally to get recognition and to change the lives also of these players. Now all those players are professionals and they earn lots of money with the game.
For South Africa it’s at this moment still a few players because there are all other problems if you were to contract players with visas and with getting them to those countries and getting the permission for them. But there are many players who have done it and they have changed the community, so not only for themselves but they’ve changed the lives of the whole community.
As a coach the only thing that you can do is to create those situations that they can grow to that level.
Tania: And the value of sport, it’s not just that ability to excel at that sport but just as a way of learning how to communicate and collaborate and work as a team, to express yourself, whether it be athletically or just with your teammates and with the world, which you give your players the confidence to do. And giving people the courage to push their boundaries and explore their limits and seeing failure not as a threat but as part of success. These are critical life skills that many people don’t learn, even at school.
Vera: It’s true. Of this team, apart from the ones who earned a contract abroad, there were when I left five players who earned a contract with television whereas before they didn’t even dare to look up and to look you in the face. Now they were in front of the cameras earning their money with analysis of games or being a reporter at games, there were all different roles that the players picked up and they grew to heroes in the country which is just amazing and fantastic.
Tania: That’s really fantastic. You’ve fought all your life for equal opportunities within sport and life, what is the most important thing you look for in someone in terms of their potential to perform at the highest level? Is it attitude, attributes or both? You’re not masked by their inability that they may present themselves with, you see potential.
Vera: Yes, but it starts with their performance on the pitch, of course, and with that, when you start to work with players, you will see that every players is going through a different curve. What you mean with the attitude and their behaviour, they’re all young people and so they make mistakes, there is hardly anyone who grows up without making mistakes. So probably where others would kick players out I would give them a chance again and a change again and a chance again which often hurts myself because it brings in vibes that you don’t want to. It’s easy to kick players out but I see it as my role to give them another chance and to let them grow and to let them make those mistakes, even if it’s in the way they behave or they act as what you say because that is part of becoming a top player as well.
If I see how players behave now at a top level and where they were when I was coaching them when we started, just the fact that you’re honest and open and demand normal behaviour from players and demand dedication from players in a normal way because it must be fun and we must laugh a lot and we must enjoy each other very much, otherwise you cannot grow to higher heights.
Within that there is, of course, rules, team rules, that everybody needs to be a part of it. If you give players another chance you hear later that they appreciated that so much and often they grab it with both hands and they come to heights that they never expected before.
Tania: Vera, you’ve shared a couple of stories with me that are such good examples of how you nurture life skills on and off the pitch. There were two stories that have really stuck in my mind, the first is when you took the Banyana Banyana girls to the swimming pool and realised they couldn’t swim, please share that story with us.
Vera: That was actually in the sea, we were in a country where there was a sea and we said, “Let’s go into the sea,” and there were many players who didn’t dare go into the sea because they were so afraid of water. So I took the bravest one by the hand and I said, “It’s true, I’m also a lifeguard so I will help you, you will not drown, I will make sure you will not even go under the water, not at all,” so I showed her what I would do to make that happen and how to support her so that she would never get under the waves.
So step by step from almost crying she stepped into the water and just that little step further and just a little step further. Others got curious so she went out and I took another player into the water and we ended up diving into the waves and they felt so comfortable being there because they knew that the ground was there under their feet. We didn’t go any further than, of course, your hips but they felt so free and they were so happy and bright.
After that our technical director, Fran Hilton-Smith, made sure that the players of the high performance centre would get every week swimming lessons because it’s part of your life skills that if you can swim it can save your life and it opens opportunities.
So part of that programme, and it had nothing to do with football, became the swimming lessons and we were proud that we could do that and it was supported by the football association. It’s just so rewarding if you see that and we had so much fun with each other and it was so great to see that they could over win their fear for water.
Tania: Fantastic, what a lesson, what a life lesson, but what a team bonding lesson as well.
Vera: Also yes, it was great fun, it was fantastic. There were also a few players who couldn’t get over that hurdle, nobody was pushing them, of course, it was just, “Do you want to overcome your fear or do you not want to?” and they trusted that it was okay so it was fantastic. It was a fantastic moment that I will never forget.
Tania: The second story is when you were at an airport with the Banyana team and some of them were talking in their own language that the others couldn’t understand which excluded them from joining in. You really used this to teach them a lesson about inclusivity.
Vera: Yes, I stepped in at that moment, that’s true, and I said, “If you are within your tribe then of course you speak your own language but like what I do when there are Dutch people around me is I don’t speak Dutch as soon as there are others around me because as soon as you do that you exclude the others from your activity.”
We had to wait at an airport and they were playing a game and suddenly some of them started to speak their own language and the others were just shifting apart, sitting on the side and taking a book and I asked, “Do you not want to join in?” “Yes, but I don’t understand them, it’s okay,” they said, “It’s okay, we’re used to that.”
I said, “No, it’s not okay because if you do something together, and I learned that as being one of a triplet, when we were young and little kids my parents said, ‘Everybody can always take part and nobody is sitting alone.’” With a triplet otherwise you get that two are playing and they say, “No, you cannot take part,” and then you get division in the team of the triplets and I felt that so strong at that moment also that it was breaking our team to not let everybody be a part of it.
So, I explained it to them and they actually agreed and they had so much fun together, whatever game it was, I don’t even know what game it was, and I used that later in a meeting why I did that. I think if you have a group activity you never exclude anyone, that doesn’t mean that you can never do something in twos or threes within your own language, but if you start a group activity you must make sure that everybody is included and that nobody is left out. I think that the feedback that I got was very positive about that.
Tania: That’s such a lesson.
Vera: I feel the way that I work is nothing special, I feel that I’m just looking at players from very deep down inside knowing that I’m just there to help them develop and to create opportunities so that they can do what they want to do. But it’s the players who are doing it, even in these stories that I just told, it’s the player who needs to step over her fear, I’m just there as a tool to help her to get over her fear.
It’s the same with the fear of failure in the game, if you never dare to step out of your comfort zone and getting and facing that unknown future, that unknown gap where you step into, you always stay where you were, you will never succeed. So it’s my job, it’s my task, to trigger them to indeed go out of their comfort zone and to step into something that is scary because it’s unknown. To go out in the world and to show yourself and to be in a full stadium that is all yellow because you play Brazil in Manaus during the Olympic games in Brazil. Turning it around in not having the fear of that whole stadium of 55,000 people against you but turning it around that they are in yellow, we were playing in yellow and Brazil was in blue, so that helped, to show it in a way that they were there for us, they are there to see our game and that is what we’ve always dreamed of and that is what we always wanted.
The biggest thing is that instead of having fear for it that you embrace it and that there is a moment that the crowd will turn around and will support you as well as they will support the home team if you show a positive environment and a positive way of approaching that game.
It actually happened like that, if you really, really want something you can get to something and you can open the doors, even to that crowd to get on your side also. Life experience is what they had to do, they had to step in between those lines and show themselves that they have never done before.
I’m about to make a very big confession to the listeners as we’ve been talking about football and you’ve taught me so much about the game but I’ve never been to a live football match and I’m still looking forward to the day.
Vera: (Laughter) Is that true? I will invite you to our next national game.
Tania: That would be amazing, and I feel embarrassed to say that on this podcast but you have never made me feel ignorant and it’s just amazing how you and Bert have just spoken to me and helped me understand and I so thank you for that.
Vera: But it’s two ways around here, you’ve taught us so much as well because of your background that you have in how you help within your physiotherapy or in getting people back to their old self, how you use the mountains and how you use the context especially to teach them. It was connecting us and we learned as much from you as hopefully you got something from us.
Tania: (Laughter)
Thank you for joining us for this LifeWise Show. In our next episode I wil have the enormous pleasure of introducing you to a winning team – Vera Pauw and Bert Van Lingen. Together they reveal why our actions need context, and how when you act a a team and acknowledge your own and other people’s strengths and limitations, together you can move forwards and achieve meaningful, purposeful goals.
I look forward to meeting you there.

Meet Tania Cotton

Tania Cotton avatar

Tania Cotton is a Movement Analyst and Chartered Physiotherapist with over 25 years' experience helping people overcome pain, injury and disease to lead a happy and fulfilling life. After 12 years as a consultant for the Swiss Olympic Medical Centre in Geneva, Tania began making films on health and human performance to show people what is possible and to inspire them to take action.

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