Two decades after its formation, the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA) continues to create national unity and pride through sports opportunities, science and education. Founded in 1995 by former South African Rugby player Morné du Plessis and Professor Tim Noakes , their vision was to establish a facility that would fund research in exercise science applied in the areas of athletic performance and health promotion.
“Fast forward 21 years and this remains our core purpose. The challenge now is adapting to an ever-changing environment so that our offering and research remain meaningful, translatable and impactful,” says Dr. Phathokuhle (Cele) Zondi, CEO SSISA.
“We focus on both wellness and performance, translating science through numerous clinical services, programmes and a growing education platform,” she says.
For Zondi, life as CEO of SSISA began in June 2016, a time of great flux for SSISA. “I’m fresh out of the starting blocks and excited about the road ahead” she says.
As a medical doctor by profession, Zondi has strong experience in the sports health and fitness industry, working in sports medicine with federations and academics.
“I’m really passionate about physical ability, sport and its ability to empower. So it only felt like a natural progression that I find myself with SSISA today,” she says.
The company has recently undergone a process of strategic renewal as it strives to adapt and stay ahead of the changes within the industry. One of the key components of SSISA’s offering is its partnership with the University of Cape Town, specifically its division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine.
The University of Cape Town, Zondi says, represents the research arm and intel of SSISA.
Over the last 18 months, SSISA through this strategic renewal process, entered a merger between the two.
“This represents quite a change in the history of SSISA. Through our strategic renewal process, we ensured that the interests of the two partners became better aligned. We are working together to create more products and services that speak to the vision, goal and intention of SSISA and The University of Cape Town,” says Zondi.
Portfolio of empowerment
The health and fitness industry is constantly evolving, like any other, and SSISA must react and adapt to ensure that it continues to offer market leading products and services that the industry demands.
Zondi believes that through the strategic renewal process, SSISA stands at a key turning point.
“We had a few key strategic shifts that will position us well to capitalise on our standing not only as a provider of services, but as providers of education in the near future” she says.
SSISA is looking to launch an education platform that will allow an ease of access to its dynamic education portfolio.
“Strategically, this is very exciting in that not only are we leveraging off our relationship and partnership with the university but we are importantly addressing current needs in the Education industry,” she says.
SSISA will launch this education platform in 2017, providing a clear pathway for individuals who want to get into this field at university level.
For the education platform to come to life, SSISA has had to embrace the ever-changing nature of technology. In the sports, health and fitness industry, the impact of technology is almost two-fold – it will affect the service providers and the way they work, but also it shapes the role of the athlete, from elite athletes right through to recreational athletes. There is more scope for data, tracking and monitoring of performances, something that Zondi believes represents a “shifting mindset” across the industry.
“As service providers, we’ve had to adapt quickly, as the technological space brings about certain pressures on the industry,” she says.
With technology - comes competition. 21 years ago, when the SSISA was first established, it stood alone as a pioneer in terms of constructing a sports science institute and the services it offered in Africa. Fast forward to today and there are a number of players in the industry, something that Zondi admits plays a key role in the company’s new outlook.
“It’s about looking at how we can differentiate our offering and really position ourselves so that we stand apart from other providers,” she says.
This technological demand and pressure is handled through regular, open dialogue with clients and members, in order to determine what they need from technology and how they are engaging with it. This is key for SSISA to adapt its products and services to better suit them. Our clients in part, inform our offering.
“While we serve elite athletes who access our most technically advanced technology, we also need to accommodate the client or the member who doesn’t have that level of technology and offer our services and our products in an accessible way to them,” she says.
Honouring the past, embracing the future
21 years ago, when the institute was founded, it was done so on the foundation of creating national pride and unity through sport’s performance using applied scientific research. SSISA strives to ensure that in everything it does through research, education its fitness centre and multiple programmes and services - that those principles are centre fold.
One way in which SSISA delivers on this, is through its staff and its level of communication and engagement with clients, members and research subjects. According to Zondi, SSISA’s greatest asset is its staff. The people who greet members at the door right through to those in the fitness centre and laboratories, are the embodiment of SSISA and what it stands for and represents.
“There was one particular member who has been with us since the very start. When we asked them what kept them coming back, aside from the services we provide, they said it was the people,” says Zondi.
“There is a culture and a sense of family here at SSISA and we take great pride in being at our best in order to bring out the best in others.”
Creating that culture and sense of family goes one step further at SSISA. The company hosts a number of activation events with members, where members of staff right through to leadership level sit down with clients and members in a unique opportunity to discuss and better understand more about the institute, the direction of leadership and how it can serve members better.
One recent function in particular was unique, as it highlighted the institute’s involvement with the 2016 Rio Olympic and Paralympics. Our facility is home for a number of national athletes and we have staff that have served as trainers and support staff for these athletes during their Olympic journey.
“The Paralympics is something that is very close to SSISA and the nation’s heart and ,a pre-Paralympics members’ function was a very special opportunity for clients to understand what we do at such an elite level,” she says.
Zondi was in fact part of the medical team at the 2016 Paralympics with Team South Africa. Being active and visible at such a prestigious sporting events over two decades highlights the growth and impact that SSISA has..
“To be seen to be active and working at the different levels in the sporting industry affirms that SSISA has numerous experts who apply their trade day by day,” says Zondi.
“It also represented a key moment for members of staff at SSISA to recognise that we have many experts in-house in multiple disciplines and we need to allow them the space and opportunity to engage at the highest level,” she says.
Power to the people
SSISA not only strives to create better sport, research and health education opportunities, it works closely within the local community. In their new strategic model, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) sits at the very top of everything that the company offers.
The company has two flagship community based projects, the Community Health Intervention Programmes (CHIPS) and the MACSTEEL Maestros programme, which they manage for Macsteel.
Established in 1997, CHIPS aims to encourage a culture of health, wellness and an active lifestyle through regular physical activity and health education.
The MACSTEEL Maestros looks specifically at providing opportunities and nurturing young athletes from disadvantaged circumstances to be reach their greatest potential.
“CSR is absolutely important,” says Zondi. “Accessibility and equity are very important to us and we must ensure that our reach extends to every level of society. We must continue to extend our footprint into communities which would otherwise not have access to our offering. Any corporation that exists in our country must play a role in skills development, education or creating greater job opportunities.”