Geoff Toyana: The art of finding gaps

In 1675, Isaac Newton wrote a letter to Robert Hooke, and in it, Newton wrote the famous statement: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” According to multiple sources, Newton made the statement to mean that if he had been able to discover more about the universe than others, then it was because he was working in the light of discoveries made by fellow scientists, either in his own time or earlier.

I relate to this statement by Newton, and one of the giants on whose shoulders I have stood on is Geoffrey Toyana, one of South Africa’s most successful and talented coaches. Toyana has consistently been at hand with tips and insights, filling the gaps, helping me along with my content.

Because that is what he does, he practices the art of finding gaps and filling them in the same way that a skilled batter would do. For instance, my article on the importance of understanding each other in building trust was a result of something he had said to me in a conversation. But, how did this well of information and insights, this giant on whose shoulders I constantly stand, get into coaching?

The move from player to coach

Growing up around accomplished players and their dressingrooms lends one a certain advantage in developing knowledge about how athletes behave and how things work. Therefore, when most people learn that Geoff Toyana’s father, Gus Toyana, was a respected cricketer, the assumption is that he was destined for this. Geoff Toyana grew up in and around the dressingroom and the cricket field. Therefore, it would seem a foregone conclusion that his life would be in that world.

But, the truth is that despite enjoying these early lessons, his fate was not defined by his childhood surroundings. Yes, they added value because of the knowledge he acquired, but he still had to travel his own journey, walk his own path and find his own gaps in the sport that means so much to his family.

He did follow in his father’s footsteps, and played for Soweto Cricket Club in the 1990s before moving to Transvaal (now Gauteng) for whom he played for and won the 1999 Supersport trophy, before joining Easterns. A player charmed with success, Toyana also won the SuperSport Series with Easterns in 2002 after defeating Western Province in the final. The final turned out to be one of the biggest upsets in South African domestic cricket history. Following a successful spell at Easterns, Geoff moved on to Titans.

But, despite these strong links to cricket while growing up and playing professional cricket, Toyana’s transition from being a player to coaching was unplanned. By his own admission, he “got into coaching by mistake.” It was all a coming together of events that saw a player in his prime, averaging 75 after four games, learn that he was out of contract.

“I had gone to England for 6 months, and came back to find out that Titans were not renewing my contract,” said Geoff Toyana. “So, I went to Easterns to play a few games on a small contract around October, only to find out their coach Andre Seymour was fired on that day. Cassim Sulliman offered me a player-coach deal. I could not compete with upcoming talent, players like Tumelo Bodibe and Mangaliso Mosehle, so I decided to hang up my whites so I could help these players. That same year, Ray Jennings, my mentor, offered me a batting role in the SA Under-19 set up.”

"I had gone to England for 6 months, and came back to find out that Titans were not renewing my contract. So, I went to Easterns to play a few games on a small contract around October, only to find out their coach Andre Seymour was… Click To Tweet

Philosophy

"The bottom line is, I am a person before I am a coach. My philosophy is to understand each and every player that I work with." Geoff Toyana Click To Tweet

However, despite such an unusual path into coaching, never one to squander opportunities, Geoff Toyana has showed that he is a master at his craft. His first season as the Highveld Lions head coach was notable for two things: he became the first black coach to lead the franchise and broke a five-season trophy drought as the Lions won the domestic Twenty20 competition. Not only that, but they were also joint holders of the one-day cup and finished second in the first-class standings.

However, that is not all he achieved with the franchise, and it certainly is not the reason why many think he should have taken over the reigns of the Proteas squad at some point. Toyana went on to win four trophies in four seasons with the Lions. And this success is partly because of his tactical awareness as well as his man-management philosophy.

“The bottom line is, I am a person before I am a coach,” says Toyana when speaking of his coaching philosophy. “Simply, my philosophy is to understand each and every player that I work with.”

This empathy driven philosophy would explain why he has constantly brought out the best out his players. A long list of players who include Quinton de Kock, Temba Bavuma, Chris Morris, Stephen Cook and Dwaine Pretorius have flourished under his guidance.

“I am a coach that’s very empathetic. As an ex-player, I know what players go through in this unforgiving sport of ours. So, I try take pressure of them and make sure that they are clear in their minds to try to compete.”

A crucial aspect of Toyana’s philosophy is an emphasis on building strong relationships with those around him. “Relationship building for me can’t be forced it must be organic it’s all about connection and people seeing that you care,” he says.

Influences

Human beings are a product of other people. Sometimes the people around us influence our worldview and behaviour without our noticing, while at other times they do so because we intentionally choose them. Some of Geoff Toyana’s indirect influencers are people whom he played under.

For instance, when someone asked him on Twitter how he developed his philosophy, whether he read books on coaching, he replied, “It’s more about my experiences as a player and the coaches who touched my heart, and also those bad experiences with coaches I hated. So I just worked out the best way forward for myself and making sure that I don’t change who I am as a person.”

But, those are not the only people to have influenced him as a coach.

“I have had lots of influencers in my life. Khaya Majola comes to mind, and my dad Gus Toyana who played for SA Black 11 in the 70s. Dave Nosworthy too, and Mark O’Donnell from New Zealand. Ray Jennings, my current mentor, who I speak to when I am not sure where I am at. So, these people showed me love that I try to pay forward with players I work with. I combine their influence, good and bad, to try to shape something better in my life as a coach.”

"These people showed me love that I try to pay forward with players I work with. I combine their influence, good and bad, to try to shape something better in my life as a coach." Click To Tweet

The art of finding gaps

Thirteen years of coaching have only served to validate his approach. Not that it has always been smooth sailing. Like any other coach, he has endured dry spells, slumps and tough periods with the teams he has coached at various levels. And all this has done is strengthen his belief that the player, as an individual, matters above everything else. And as he serves on the Multiply Titans’ coaching staff, he continues to live that philosophy.

It is a philosophy that he will carry wherever the journey of coaching will take him. He will keep living the “art of finding gaps”. In the same manner that a skilled batter will constantly find gaps to score, Geoff Toyana will constantly find gaps that require filling as he works with players. And which each gap he finds, he leaves a player not only a better cricketer or sportsperson but also a better human being.

For more insights on this giant on whose shoulders I stand on, look out for a chat we are working on for the Idea-sharing project, coming soon.