Ted Lasso, Brené Brown and Rassie Erasmus inspire SA women’s water polo squad

Ted Lasso, Brené Brown and Rassie Erasmus inspire SA women’s water polo squad
SA water polo captain Megan Sileno at a training camp. (Photo: Debbie Adcock)

Despite 24-2 and 25-3 defeats against Canada and Italy, respectively, in their opening two games at the World Aquatics Championships in Doha, the South African women’s water polo team have a broader view of success and failure.

The South African women’s water polo team, led by their dedicated coach, Nicola Barrett, and captain, Megan Sileno, have embarked on a journey that promises tough challenges and exciting opportunities.

Sileno set the tone for the campaign ahead after their first day of training in Doha, remarking, “The excitement at being back together is evident, and we are ready to get going. The team is in high spirits for the games ahead.”

Fuelling this positive outlook is Barrett’s coaching philosophy, which is deeply rooted in empathy. Barrett draws inspiration from the endearing character of Ted Lasso, the fictional football manager who captured hearts worldwide.

She admires Ted’s focus on the individual needs of players and the importance of creating a supportive environment where they feel valued and cared for.

Barrett reflects on a scene where Ted fixes the water pressure in the players’ showers. She emphasises the significance of attending to the “little things” that foster a positive team environment.

This, in turn, promotes a sense of belonging and camaraderie among players. In another memorable scene, Ted responds to criticism from a football journalist.

Ted says, “I love coaching … For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field. And it ain’t always easy … but neither is growing up without someone believing in you.”

Nicola Barrett, water polo

South Africa women’s water polo squad head coach Nicola Barrett. (Photo: Albert ten Hove / Orange Pictures)

Personal growth

In a world where victories and losses often dominate headlines, Barrett champions the notion that success is measured not just in trophies but in the personal growth and fulfilment of her team.

“If I can see that one of my players isn’t in the right headspace, I’ll chat with them to find out what’s going on,” Barrett said, highlighting her proactive approach to supporting her team members through life’s challenges.

By prioritising open dialogue and empathy, Barrett has cultivated a culture of trust and understanding, empowering her players to thrive both in and out of the pool.

Beyond the realm of fiction lies the tangible influence of real-life mentors.

Motivational guru Brené Brown’s mantra, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind,” inspires Barrett’s coaching philosophy.

She stressed that it is extremely important to have good communication as a coach.

“I told my players who will be sitting out which games about three weeks ago. This gives me an opportunity to chat to those who might feel upset. I’ve managed to have those chats with everyone. So, when we come on tour, we’re all in a good space.”

Barrett’s focus on clear communication means each player understands their role and feels valued within the team structure.

Barrett’s coaching ethos also bears the imprint of inspirational Springbok rugby coach, Rassie Erasmus. Known, in part, for his innovative strategies and divergent approach to coaching, Rassie embodies the spirit of risk-taking and experimentation.

“The thing about Rassie is that he’s not afraid to take risks,” Barrett said. “He steps into the arena fully aware that it could all go wrong, but he’s willing to risk it to get the best out of his players.”

Innovative team formations exemplify Barrett’s ethos. She has three distinct starting line-ups tailored to different strategies, each unleashing a different weapon. While conventional approaches often see a core group of players starting every game, this bold departure mirrors Rassie’s revolutionary tactics in rugby, where strategic substitutions and dynamic game plans have redefined traditional substitutions for injury or fatigue.


South African water polo teams enter the pool as underdogs in almost all their matches at a World Championships.

Resources and training opportunities are often limited in South Africa, and players juggle demanding work schedules with gruelling training sessions in order to be at their best.

They compete against some professional teams and many well-funded amateur teams that have a number of players competing in professional leagues in countries outside their own.

Anna Thornton-Dibb, water polo

Lucrezia Gergol (right) of Italy in action against Anna Thornton-Dibb of South Africa during the Fina World Aquatics Championships on 6 February 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ali Haider)

Barrett’s embrace of risk and innovation offers a glimmer of hope for any matches that could be tightly contested. One such match is their last pool game.

“Our goal is to focus on the Great Britain game in our pool and to put in all efforts to win that one,” Sileno said.

While Canada and Italy stand as formidable opponents in their first two pool games, the Great Britain match offers an opportunity to defy expectations and pull off an unlikely win.

This will almost guarantee a top 12 finish to match or better their best World Championships result of 12th place in Fukuoka last year.

Great Britain returned to the World Championships in Doha for the first time in 11 years, having had all their government funding cut in 2014.

They have strengthened significantly over the last few years since they were awarded some funding again in early 2021.

Claudia Mareltta, water polo

Claudia Mareltta of Italy in action during the Fina World Aquatics Championships on 6 February 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ali Haider)

“I think people forget that before the 2012 Olympics, Great Britain was a reputable international team with wins over a couple of traditional water polo powers … It just shows you that when the resources invested meet the passion of the programme, great things can happen,” US women’s water polo coach, Adam Krikorian, told LEN European Aquatics earlier this year.

Barrett expects a fast-paced game against Great Britain. Her quickest and most agile players will be ready to showcase their speed and skill against a resilient British outfit.

Empowered by empathy, clear communication and a spirit of innovation, the South African women’s water polo team dives into the pool hoping to make history by achieving consecutive top 12 World Championships finishes. DM

SA vs Great Britain on SuperSport channel 207 on Thursday, 8 February, at 09:30 SAST


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Micaella Rogers says:

    A great read! Awesome to put the spotlight on a sport we don’t often hear much about – especially when it’s women

  • andrew farrer says:

    If you have a coach who thinks a team’s performance is measured in personal growth, you’re on a hiding to nothing before you enter the arena! Lets give everyone winners tropheys why don’t we? I watched a few of this team’s games last year, and it’s embarrassing! the team (apart from one or two) lack the most basic skills. They can’t throw or catch, and seem to have no structure or knowledge of tactics. And this is not likley to improve as you’re drawing from a very small pool of talent, mostly privileged private school girls who play in a sanitised league where the dark arts of the sport are frowned upon. Come on coach, get the skills right & toughen them up that they can dish out what they receive.

  • Megan Stirk says:

    Fantastic Read – incredibly sad and disheartening that the Corrupt Swimming South Africa has given up their spot at the Olympics once again. These athletes are all self-funded and put so much into their craft – however corrupt bodies like SSA always manage to take all the effort, blood, sweat and tears and make it amount to nothing in one foul decision. These athletes deserve so much more.

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