SA polocrosse team mentor gets her PhD in sports psychology

2013-04-16 00:00

KIRSTEN van Heerden has always been passionate about sports. This passion has led her into sports psychology, where she works with the South African polocrosse team and physically and intellectually disabled swimmers.

She is also an international eligibility officer, assessing intellectually disabled athletes to allow them to compete in the Paralympics.

Van Heerden graduated yesterday with a PhD at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Using her experience as a swimmer, while at Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High School, she has been able to prepare athletes and get them in the right mindset to compete.

Using these skills, Van Heerden, who has since moved to Durban, helped lead the South African polocrosse team to victory in the Polocrosse World Cup in England in 2011. South Africa are now ranked number one in the world in polocrosse.

“It was such an incredible experience,” Van Heerden said of the world cup. “South Africa had never made it to the semi-finals before, and to win the whole tournament was such an achievement.”

After the Sydney Paralympics scandal in 2000, when 10 members of the Spanish basketball team lied about being intellectually disabled, the Para­lympics banned intellectually disabled athletes from competing entirely.

Van Heerden played her part in getting intellectually disabled athletes back into the Paralympics last year for the first time in over a decade. She volunteered to become an eligibility officer for Inas, the International Federation for sport for para-athletes with an intellectual disability.

“Intellectually disabled people are the most underrated people in South Africa. Sport is an incredible tool to use for them and opens up numerous opportunities for them to achieve. I love working with disabled athletes. They are amazing people who have gone through so much, but still succeed despite their disability …” said Van Heerden.

She said she balances her work between both abled and disabled athletes. “Although I work with both types of athletes, I do work more with the para-athletes. Working with both types of athletes brings different challenges and requires different skills.”

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