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William, Dobson, Nic, Mogale

John Dobson: Belonging drives performance

John Dobson is director of rugby at Western Province Rugby and the head coach of the DHL Stormers rugby team. He was pivotal in turning the once-bankrupt team into the 2021–22 United Rugby Championship winners.

Dobson’s many achievements include a master’s degree in creative writing and two novels. He argued that leaders need to understand their people’s stories.

Make Cape Town smile

Almost all successful sports teams have a mission. Dobson explained that the Stormers’ mission is to make Cape Town smile. “Our obsession is our connection with our fans — who they are and where they come from,” he said.

He shared a clip of prop Steven Kitshoff sprinting all-out during a play toward the end of a game his team had already won. “There was something bigger that was driving him,” commented Dobson. “And that’s why we came up with a mission. We have to have a reason to make those sorts of runs.”

Dobson related this to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who the gods condemned to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a mountain. Each time he reached the top, the boulder would roll back down. The French author Albert Camus described Sisyphus as an absurd hero.

“The absurd hero is the guy who finds joy in the struggle,” explained Dobson. He believes that the Stormers’ relationship with their supporters allows team members to adopt what he calls a sacrificial mindset — they’ll do whatever it takes to get Capetonians smiling.

Being part of us

One side of performance is what Dobson calls mission-critical: training, recovery, and nutrition. The other is the concept of part of us. “Those are all our behaviours that make someone feel like they belong,” he said. “I reckon half of my job is just around the belonging.”

His challenge is that the Stormers have 57 contracted players, but only 23 are chosen for each Saturday’s match. Dobson has to ensure that everyone has a sense of belonging whether or not they’ll be on the field.

He emphasised the importance of creating a safe environment where everyone is accepted. “If we feel like we can be ourselves and be respected and included, then we can coexist as good teammates. But you can’t belong if you pretend to be someone else.”

The team is scored daily on FMB — fun, meaning, belonging. “Fun is not the shallow fun,” said Dobson. “It’s that feeling of deep lekker when you put in the work, and you get the reward. Meaning is making Cape Town smile. And belonging is the key to the future of sports management.”

Everyone has a story

“The idea of the team no longer exists,” stated Dobson. “It’s a group of individuals.” He told of flanker Hacjivah Dayimani’s remarkable journey from an impoverished childhood in Joe Slovo informal settlement to helping the Stormers win the 2021–22 United Rugby Championship.

“We have to understand his story — why he’s playing,” said Dobson. “He’s playing to put his brother through medical school.”

Building a winning team requires taking the time to know each individual. People will only come together and give their best once they are accepted for who they are. Dobson described this as the absolute essence of management.

“You should make sure that you see people. You must know the stories of the people you manage,” he said. “It takes a lot of work, but it allows extraordinary things to be done.”

Caption: Prof William Gumede, John Dobson, Nic Dicey, Dr Mogale Sebopetsa

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