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Siya Kolisi: the South African rugby star’s story offers valuable lessons in resilience

In the world of sports, some stories transcend the boundaries of the game and become symbolic of something greater. Siya Kolisi’s journey from an adverse upbringing to becoming captain of a World Cup-winning South African rugby team, the Springboks, is one such story.


Kolisi made history as the first black captain of the Springboks in a country where, because of apartheid and separate development, the professional sport was once an all-white affair. Rugby was firmly associated with white national pride, and now a black man from a humble background has become a national hero, reshaping the sport’s image.

Despite being a democracy since 1994, South Africa continues to struggle to forge a unified and equitable society while acknowledging its diverse cultural heritage. Kolisi’s appointment as captain in 2018 signaled a new chapter of inclusivity, diversity and unity.


As an industrial psychologist, I have a particular interest in psychobiographical studies. Psychobiographies provide insights into the lives and minds of historically significant individuals like Kolisi. Understanding their inner and external worlds helps us grasp their motivations and actions – and the broader context of their impact on society. This enriches our knowledge of history and human behavior.


Kolisi’s story defies the odds and highlights the power of resilience, the ability to bounce back from adversity, trauma or setbacks. It empowers other people to navigate and overcome life’s challenges. With effective coping strategies and support systems, resilience can foster personal growth, adaptability and mental well-being. This ultimately shapes people into more resourceful individuals.


The early years

Siyamthanda Kolisi was born in 1991 in Zwide, in Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth) in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. Although apartheid had all but ended, social and economic inequalities persisted. Many black people continued living in disadvantaged settlements on the outskirts of cities and towns. They had limited employment opportunities and schools were under-resourced.


From the outset, Kolisi faced many challenges that could have derailed his dreams. He lived in a society plagued with poverty, malnutrition, crime, substance misuse and violence.


According to his autobiography, his parents were both teenagers when he was born. As a result, he was raised by his grandmother, who performed ad hoc jobs until she could no longer work. Kolisi had to look after her until her death. Losing his primary caregiver was one of his most significant early challenges. His grandmother died in his arms when he was 12. Kolisi wrote:

The one person who’d loved me unconditionally had gone, and without her, Zwide could seem an even scarier place than before.

His upbringing reflects the resilience of countless South Africans striving for a better life. In 2002, he joined a local rugby team which provided him with a crucial positive role model in headmaster and coach Eric Songwiqi. This new environment offered a structure that was missing in his life after the loss of his grandmother. The support from his coach and the responsibility he felt towards his teammates prompted a transformation in his coping strategies.


Coping strategies create resilience

Kolisi’s story serves as a powerful testament to the concept of resilience: how individuals adapt and grow in response to challenges. Sometimes, people engage in socially unacceptable behaviors as coping mechanisms to survive their harsh realities.


In his early years, Kolisi engaged in substance misuse, violence, aggressiveness and self-destructive behaviour to cope with challenges and form an identity to fit in to his society. Playing rugby, attending school, spirituality and faith also helped him cope.


His journey encompasses socially acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, demonstrating that overcoming adversity is dynamic. Our backgrounds, life experiences and the societies we belong to shape who we are and our lives’ direction.


In a broader context, Kolisi’s story highlights the importance of recognizing diverse social and cultural influences on human development. I believe that psychologists need more inclusive and culturally sensitive approaches to understanding human development.


Our lives are like puzzles with many different pieces. Some of these might cause problems or risks, while others help keep us safe and secure. These risky and protective pieces all come together to shape our lives.


Rugby as a lifeline

Rugby played an important role in Kolisi’s life, both on and off the field. In a team environment, he found solace and a nurturing environment that provided security, a sense of belonging. A refuge from his chaotic life at home and in society.


From this, we can see that our social and cultural context significantly shapes our lives. And while context can be a source of harmony and discord in human development, it’s possible to get past adversity with resilience and determination.


One of the key takeaways from my study of Kolisi is the importance of viewing marginalized individuals holistically. Individuals are not defined solely by their circumstances. By understanding the multifaceted aspects of their lives, we can help them on their journey towards success and fulfillment.


Beyond rugby

Kolisi’s resilience and success is not limited to rugby. He’s used his platform to make a positive impact in his community and beyond. Through the Kolisi Foundation he has provided opportunities and support to improve the lives of disadvantaged communities.


This includes providing safe spaces through sport and education, addressing gender-based violence and contributing to food security. His commitment to giving back reflects his belief in the ubuntu philosophy of humanity towards others. The journey from adversity to triumph is not complete until others are uplifted.


Resilience matters

Kolisi’s story is not just about overcoming adversity but finding purpose and meaning in that adversity.

He reminds us that no matter where we come from, we have the potential to rise above adversity, challenge the status quo and shape a brighter future.


Resilience is the driving force that enables people to persevere, grow, and ultimately shape their futures.

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