Sport Really Can Empower Women — Just Look At Banyana Banyana’s Thembi Kgatlana
Being a professional athlete for any sport doesn’t happen overnight. Women’s Health spoke to Banyana Banyana striker Thembi Kgatlana about her career, her move to China and the community sports development projects she’s working on.
Thembi had her first encounter with soccer when she played with a boys’ team in Randfontein in the West Rand in Gauteng, at eight years old. “It was tough playing as the only girl among boys, but I learnt to be a soldier at a young age and toughening up was part of that process,” she says. Thembi played with the boys’ team until the age of 11, before she was exposed to the girls’ team. A few years later, I joined the High Performance Centre in Pretoria. The centre offers young girls in South Africa an opportunity to train for the national soccer teams.
In 2014, Thembi was selected to play for Banyana Banyana before playing for Lusaka Football Club in Zambia. She then moved to Cape Town to play for UWC Sasol League. Last year, she received her first professional international contract with an American team called the Houston Dash Football Club, before signing to Beijing BG Phoenix Football Club in China this year.
A love for the game
Thembi has been playing for 15 years now, as a way to express herself. “I’d have personal problems at home and school, but the minute I stepped onto the field, I would completely forget about everything I was facing,” she says. Soccer has taught Thembi to represent who she is and where she comes from. “On the field, I stand up for my beliefs, morals, culture and that has meaning for me,” she says.
As a soccer player, it’s important for Thembi to practise her scoring techniques. She does this by maintaining her fitness levels and doing plenty of cardio. “One of the workouts I do to better myself on the field includes working on my footing techniques. This goes a long way during our games,” she says.
- Sprints. Thembi loves running sprints. “When I play, I need to be quick on my feet and sprints are good for that,” she says.
- Body-weight training. “I do exercises that require me to use my body weight, such as push-ups and pull-ups. These are great as I can I can do them at home,” says Thembi.
- Cardio is key! Thembi enjoys doing aerobics and boxing. “I have a trainer who challenges me for two hours a day in the morning. Both workouts are good for endurance and for burning many calories.”
- Core work. Thembi focuses on core workouts for core strength, stability and to gain good balance. Some basic core exercises that can be done at home include planks, sit-ups, crunches and V-ups.
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Jermaine ➡️ Thembi ➡️ GOAL ⚽️!!! An assist by @jseoposenwe to @kgatlanathe1st who netted the only goal of the match gave #BanyanaBanyana the edge over the Nigeria, recording their second win in history against the Super Falcons ⚽️ A superb team effort, a win and a celebration in the opening match of the Women’s AFCON 💛💚 #limitless
With soccer, much like any other sport, you need to take care of your wellbeing. Thembi believes in fuelling her body with what it needs. “As players, we travel to countries that require many vaccinations, so our health needs to taken care of on a daily basis,” she says. As they travel to play in different countries, they experiment with different food, so her immune system needs to be strong.
What’s on your plate?
Thembi doesn’t follow a specific meal plan. “To be honest, growing up we used to eat pap and meat every day. Now that I play professionally, I still eat my pap and bunny chows, but in moderation,” she says. And it’s important not to feel guilty about the food you eat. “No matter what I eat, I make a conscious effort to train to sustain my career. [When] I step into the gym, I know I’ve [taken in] many calories that I need to burn, so I push hard,” she says.
Playing internationally vs locally
There’s a big difference between the two, says Thembi. Playing soccer internationally can become a full-time career and guarantee a stable income. “Your contract stipulates your training hours, playing schedules, strict terms and conditions. While it’s amazing to wake up every day to do what you love, she says, the sad reality is that it’s a bit difficult to play soccer full-time in South Africa. “Even if you play for national teams, you still need two or three more jobs to sustain yourself and your family,” she says.
The big move
Thembi signed to Beijing BG Phoenix Football Club in China this year and describes the move as an eye-opening experience. “The language, culture, food and people have been a highlight. In China, people rise early to take morning walks. I’ve made friends easily and the locals are always eager to assist,” she adds. She has a translator, who helps her with daily communication.
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As a sportswoman, Thembi’s aim is to grow the industry through community development for young girls and women. “I want to use sport to address the issues the community faces, as a way to combat crime,” she says.
The Thembi Kgatlana Foundation will be hosting her own soccer tournament taking place in her home town Matlakeng in the Northern Cape from the 9-14 December 2019. This will be the first women-only tournament in South Africa. “I’d love to make an impact in women’s development in sports in this country. The tournament is free for the entire community. I want to give back to my community,” she says. The foundation will be buying sanitary pads, school uniforms and stationery for the schools in the community. Thembi and her team will also be spending time at old-age homes and churches, to give the elderly food parcels for the Christmas period.
Pearls of wisdom
“This year has been a tough one for me. I’ve watched many people close to me make the wrong decisions because of instant gratification,” says Thembi. Her advice: Invest time in things to reap the rewards. “While you work hard, be consistent. When you’re consistent, you climb the ladder, even if it takes time to get there,” she says.
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The Banyana Banyana team travels abroad to play against Japan in a friendly match on 10 November. Follow Thembi and the Banyana Banyana players on social media to find out more about their fixtures and scores.