Ans Botha: Listening to athletes and their bodies for more than 50 years

Celebrated coach Ans Botha has left an indelible mark on South African athletics in a career spanning over five decades. Botha spoke to Olympics.com about her coaching philosophy and... Read more
Ans Botha: Listening to athletes and their bodies for more than 50 years

Celebrated coach Ans Botha has left an indelible mark on South African athletics in a career spanning over five decades.

Botha spoke to Olympics.com about her coaching philosophy and the lack of female mentors.

Ans Botha is still going strong.

On the other side of 80, the iconic athletics coach is still spreading the track and field gospel, and impacting the lives of young athletes.

Botha’s influence on the sport in South Africa and beyond is huge, and there is no doubting her role as a doyenne of coaching on the continent as she is entering her 55th year as an athletics mentor.

The celebrated coach may be best known for her hand in South African world record-holder and Olympic champion Wayde van Niekerk’s success.

She has also served as a mother figure to other athletes she has moulded over the years. And while Botha has been an agent of change over decades of service to the sport and its athletes, she laments the lack of female coaches and athletes involved in the sport.

“I have come quite a long way with athletics and have experienced the intensity of the sport every day of my life,” Botha told Olympics.com.

“What I have come to realise over time is that female athletes are becoming fewer and fewer. I don’t know why, but it also affects the number of women coaches.”

Ans Botha: Challenging female coaches

Botha hoped her dedication and successes over the years would inspire young girls and women to take up coaching and serve as role models to others. She emphasised that it was also up to women themselves to raise the profile of female coaching and sports.

“It’s essential that women take ownership in terms of coaching and representation of women,” she said.

“A woman has that gift or intuition, that sixth sense, to identify or notice circumstances and problems. And in this way, our athletes are looked after better physically and psychologically.”

The great-grandmother – who recently had a knee replacement – started coaching her own children back in 1968 in Namibia after what she perceived as a lack of interest from the teachers. Two years later, she wrote her first coaching exam, further fueling her love for the sport and piquing her interest.

Her passion would ultimately lead her to Bloemfontein in the central region of South Africa in 1990, where she was appointed head athletics coach at the University of the Free State. This is where Botha has left deep impressions on young athletes’ bodies and minds for over three decades and counting.

A teenage Van Niekerk crossed her path here for the first time in 2012, which ultimately developed into one of the most successful athlete-coach relationships in South African athletics’ history.

Despite some personal and professional setbacks along the way, Botha has no plans of slowing down working with young people that keep her on her toes. Athletics also proved to be Botha’s salvation after the death of her son and husband seven years apart.

“A few months ago, I turned 81, and my love and passion for athletics, the joy and the enjoyment I get from my coaching every day, is only getting stronger,” Botha said.

“On the other hand, it is only by the grace of the dear Father and blessing that I am still healthy. About two months ago, I had a knee replacement, but I’m back to work, walking up and down with no problem.

“I am still of sound mind to work out the programmes, but I was probably born with it (coaching talent). Ever since I was very young, I loved sports, but athletics always stood out a little bit more.”

Ans Botha: Reading athlete bodies

Tannie (auntie) Ans, as she is affectionately known, admits she does not use a computer when working out her programmes for her athletes but is instead guided by what their bodies tell her. Botha’s coaching mantra is to ‘listen’ to her athletes’ bodies.

“I work out my programmes according to their needs and fitness levels. That’s why it’s so incredibly important to me to work with the athletes every day,” she said.

“I read and try to know my athletes’ bodies as well as I can and then work out my programmes according to that. It is a process that takes time. It could take two, three, sometimes four years to get an athlete through the processes before they are strong enough to perform and start running good times.”

The same coaching philosophy can be attributed to Van Niekerk’s stunning performances on the track between 2014 and 2017, where the South African pushed the boundaries of the one-lap sprint.

We always have to remember that we don’t work with robots. We work with people. You have to prioritise the human element.

The then 18-year-old van Niekerk started his senior career as a promising sprinter winning the South African senior 200m title in Durban. Persistent injuries nearly derailed his burgeoning career before Botha’s coaching interventions.

Botha ‘listened’ to his body and moved him to the lactic inducing 400m event as she believed the explosiveness of the 100m and 200m aggravated his injuries. The shift worked like a charm, with Van Niekerk going on a record-breaking run over three years.

During this time, Van Niekerk won back-to-back one-lap world titles (2015 and 2017), 200m world silver (2017), and he claimed the Olympic 400m title in Rio 2016 in a world record-breaking time of 43.03 seconds.

Highlighting his incredible range across the sprint distances, the South African became the first athlete to have produced sub-10, sub-20, sub-31 and sub-44 performances in the 100m, 200m, 300m and 400m, respectively.

 

Ans Botha: Architect of awesome

Considered the architect behind much of Van Niekerk’s success, Botha breathed rarefied air, becoming the first and only female coach in South Africa to produce a world champion in track and field.

World Athletics honoured Botha at its 2017 Athletics Awards, where she was given the Coaching Achievement award.

Their successful partnership ended at the beginning of 2021 when Van Niekerk announced he would join coach Lance Brauman in the United States.

“I’ve spent most of my career under the guidance of ‘Tannie’ Ans Botha at my home base in Bloemfontein, and I can’t express the gratitude I have for everything she has done to help me get to this point in my career,” Van Niekerk said in a statement.

Even the loss of her star athlete did not dampen her passion for making a difference in the lives of young athletes.

Ans Botha: People first

Botha follows a person-first approach where she strives to develop well-balanced individuals off the track.”We always have to remember that we don’t work with robots. We work with people. You have to prioritise the human element,” Botha said.

“We work with people with fragile bodies, with a soul that can get hurt or feel insulted, and you must always remember that. We work with people and not with machines.”

Botha said she made an effort to not only know her athletes on the track but also understand their circumstances outside the sport, whether in their personal lives or their studies.

“I really try to be there for my athletes in all circumstances, and many times it happens that today that child doesn’t get practice, and then you go to him, and you ask him. Then he says: “Tannie, I didn’t eat for two days because I have no money to buy food.”The dear Lord guides you through your coaching and teaches these children life lessons. The day they graduate, they leave as balanced, respectful and well-mannered people.”

Ans Botha: Empowering female coaches

Botha is not alone in her efforts.The International Olympic Committee has launched the Women in Sport High Performance Pathway (WISH) to address the paucity of female representation in coaching.The WISH programme is supported by Olympic Solidarity which is investing $1 million USD, and is designed to equip around 100 women to coach at elite levels.

It aims to further develop the sport-specific skills, leadership competence and career ambitions of high-calibre female coaches.Botha said the programme was a step in the right direction as she called for more female coaches to be financially supported and empowered through similar initiatives.

“A programme like this would be fantastic because it will only motivate our women to continue and go further in coaching. They would get the necessary opportunities and support at every level,” Botha said.”If that is the case, it is a wonderful initiative. Any female coach can only benefit from something like that.”Botha advised aspiring female coaches to remain inquisitive, embrace each opportunity to learn, and gain real-world experience.

“All I can say to girls or women who want to become coaches is to push through! Write your exams, go to every clinic, and embrace every opportunity to learn more and be better informed about coaching advances, methods, techniques and that type of stuff,” she said.

“Collect all that knowledge! It is, of course, extremely important to gain practical experience on or next to the track. Because the success you achieve is your own, it’s something you’ve tried, tested, and worked for your athletes. In that way, you enrich your knowledge and apply it in your daily coaching and practical work on the track.”

Botha said it was equally important to tap into the knowledge and experience of other coaches.

“If a coach refuses to answer your questions, at least you tried and asked. Tomorrow, you go to someone else, ask the same questions, and get the answer,” Botha said.

“You may wrestle with a question or problem, and when you go abroad, you make friends or acquaintances with a foreign coach at international meetings who may have more experience. Ask! And in that way, you supplement your knowledge and practical application of coaching.”

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