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27 April 2021 | in NUSF News

From student to director of sport: the journey of Steven Ball at South Africa's University of Pretoria

“Tuks of niks.” It’s a common phrase which becomes a lifestyle for the 50 000+ students enrolled into the University of Pretoria, as well as the hundreds of thousands of alumni who have passed through the prestigious doors at Tuks, as the institution based in South Africa’s capital city is affectionately known. Directly translated in the local Afrikaans language as “Tuks or nothing”, this heartfelt pledge to the thriving university is embodied by Steven Ball, who in January was appointed as the university’s new Director of Sport.


Ball has come full circle, having enrolled into the university as a fresh-faced 17-year-old in 1997.


“24 years ago I arrived at the university to study Human Movement Science, with the aim of eventually becoming a Biokineticist, but specifically working with elite athletes and teams,” he reflects. “I had never in my wildest dreams believed that today I would be fortunate and blessed to have been in this position and have been given this responsibility to try and lead in an environment I hold very close to my heart.”


Ball’s journey began in his childhood as a budding young swimmer who was taken by his father to be tested by an elite-level fitness coach, an experience which ignited his dream to work with performance athletes.

The journey continued as a student at Tuks, a university renowned for its sporting prowess and top-class facilities, housing a High Performance Centre used by several national teams.


Working his way up from a student to an intern, then coach, manager, deputy director and now director, Ball lives and breathes Tuks, and has already got down to serious work in his new position after just two months.


“It’s been an interesting, challenging, yet exciting time so far, filled with much personal hope of what the next phase of sport at the University of Pretoria and Tuks Sport will be like,” he says. “I am also using the first couple of months to engage, talk and review my thoughts, whilst engaging with colleagues, stakeholders and key people to formulate the next chapter. What is key, is finding new sustainable ways of doing old business, whilst ensuring we have an impact not only on the field, but also outside the four white lines.”


Heading up the sports department of one of South Africa’s most successful sporting universities is no easy task. The University of Pretoria sit second on the all-time list of Varsity Cup (the annual national university rugby tournament) victories, while across the annual Varsity Sports competition (comprising of South African university teams competing in different sporting codes across the year), Tuks have earned a total of 19 titles, more than double their closest rivals University of Johannesburg and Tshwane University of Technology with eight apiece.


“The pressure of expectation is there and has been there for a long time,” Ball says of his task in continuing the university’s success. “More so the expectation of us living up to our own culture, our own performance standards and our own ways of doing business. The added pressure is now associated with how we take the business of sport forward in a sustainable manner at TuksSport and the High Performance Center, without compromising our culture and performance standards.”


Undertaking this job in the middle of a global pandemic has made his task all the more challenging, yet Ball is proud of how the institution has powered forward in trying times.


“I must say I am truly proud of how our programmes have run toward the challenge,” he says. “Throughout the lockdown period our elite athletes and coaches found ways of connecting and training. All our sports are now operational, some in limited numbers. Our programmes adapted, our people adapted and they embraced the challenge faced.”


While sport has always been a major focus for many Tuks students who have gone on to excel, Ball is a firm believer in the value of education, which cannot be undermined. 


“Education is the core fundamental for us all,” he states. “Sporting platforms are there to provide the springboard for students to excel, both academically and in sport. But we must protect the integrity, the environment we are looking to foster, and be reminded that the role of a university is to challenge. Challenge thinking, the way we do things and to break paradigms.”


Ball, who draws inspiration from both his parents and his wife, with whom he not only parents his daughters but also the 640 students in the on-campus residence where they live, understands the importance universities have in fostering the next generation of national sporting talent, and believes South African university sport is well on track to keep feeding the nation’s various teams with quality talent.


“I believe that over the last number of years, there has been pockets of excellence that developed across university institutions,” he starts. “Where an institution has put their thoughts, energy and resources behind specific sports, excellence and success has been seen.

“University Sport in South Africa has over many years, across numerous sporting codes, formed the backbone of sporting and sporting performance in South Africa. It must be protected at all costs, so that we can continue to produce well-rounded student sports women and men.


“We have some passionate leaders within the University sport space and I believe if we can harness this passion in the right ways, ignoring the political plays and avoiding poor governance that we see in many organisations, we can continue to develop and grow student sport, not for our personal good and growth, but for what its intended aim is: to provide the necessary and appropriate platforms for students and student-athletes to soar, thrive, be challenged and showcase their abilities, whilst promoting healthy lifestyle and learning.”


The passionate student sport administrator has a message for his fellow university sports leaders both in South Africa, and across the globe: “Responsible leadership in sport in my view means that we not only focus on performance at all costs, but also the impact on sustainable financial management, impact on the environment and impact through social relevance. It’s time for us all to step up.”


Photos: courtesy of TuksSport