September saw the start of the new rugby season. A time which I’m usually desperate for after the summer break. This year, however, it’s felt very bittersweet. With the Olympics and Paralympics now over, I should have been clinging to the excitement of the rugby season to help fill that void (read about my post-Olympics withdrawal).
The start of the 2016/17 rugby season though has only served to remind me that a few months ago I decided to step away from my role within the sport for the first time in 12 years. In that 12 year period, I have coached in 3 different countries, obtained 2 coaching certificates, attended numerous child welfare and first aid courses as well as regular CPD sessions and coaching conferences, coached quite literally hundreds of children and adults, and taken on more than just coaching roles as fixtures secretary, mini & junior secretary, fundraiser, and event organiser. This time last year, I also undertook a once in a lifetime opportunity as a match management volunteer during the Rugby World Cup. I did all of this for my absolute love of this sport; for everything I believe this sport can bring to people; and for the wonderful things it has brought to my life.
So why, when I live and breathe this incredible sport, have I decided that this season enough is enough? It wasn’t a decision I took lightly and I appreciate the counsel from my family (my real one and my rugby one).
When I started coaching in 2004, it was very rare to see other females involved in that role in the game. I would attend regional coaching conferences with over 60 delegates and there would be me and perhaps 1 other female coach present. The club I coached at had a ladies’ team and had done so for many years. The attitude at the club for a female coach was extremely supportive. In coaching representative rugby though, attitudes were still very outdated. Having had to explain to a grandfather, who persisted in asking my (male) Assistant Coach questions that he wasn’t able to answer, that I, as Head Coach, could help advise accordingly, said grandparent chose to remove his grandson from the field mid-session with mutterings about ‘since when did girls start coaching rugby’.
Fast-forward a decade and I know a few female RFU-employed Community Rugby Coaches as well as gradually seeing a few more appear as volunteer coaches at community club level (although when I say a few, I do still mean I’ve come across less than 10 in my current region). Sadly, though what I haven’t seen is a change in the attitude of some of the gentlemen still involved in managing, running and supporting the sport.
On a regular basis, every season, I get remarks about ‘how surprising’ it is that a female coaches rugby and even ‘more suprising’ that I coach boys’ rugby. I still hear the very patronising ‘well, good for you’ when I’ve had to explain to coaches at other clubs that ‘no, I’m not a physio or a team manager, but yes, I am a coach’. And I still get asked when showing my support for the senior teams at my club, ‘which one is your boyfriend or husband then?’ As if I could only possibly be in attendance at the club on a Saturday, if it was some dutiful obligation as a WAG.
One of the things I love most about rugby is that is doesn’t matter what size or shape you are, there is a playing position for you. And in turn, it doesn’t matter who you are as an individual, there will always be a role for you in the game – even if you just want to spectate. At least, it shouldn’t.
I have sat in numerous meetings with RFU representatives and reps from other local clubs about how we can encourage participation in the sport at every level and for every role. Suggestions of doing a skills audit of mini & junior parents and then matching them to suitable volunteer roles in the club, organising fixtures for A-level age players on a mid-week evening – allowing them weekends to focus on studies or part-time employment, having clubs offer social teams whereby you don’t have to commit to two evenings for training and a weekend day for fixtures every week, and lots more excellent ideas which would allow so many more people to be involved in this wonderful game.
What I have seen, though, is everyone go back to their clubs and the RFU teams go back to their daily duties, and the game absolutely doesn’t change a bit.
If you’re an adult player then it’s usually Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays/Sundays as a minimum commitment. For juniors, its mid-week training and Sunday fixtures but then it may also be school fixtures and perhaps even county training and fixtures. Honestly, this just isn’t a feasible commitment for a lot of people who would love to play or be involved in rugby (not least parents who I have huge admiration for when I see how they juggle their jobs, families and endless extra-curricular regimes for each child).
Not just this, but I’ve seen countless times where the small kid gets overlooked instead of focusing on what strengths they can bring to a game. I’ve seen teams winning by big margins and still not bring on their reserve players who never get game time. I’ve seen training focus only on those who will be off to play county rugby that weekend so that the club looks good, whilst the players not-selected are stuck as tackle targets. Where is the inclusivity in this? Where is the opportunity for everyone no matter what?
Development of the game
In the past couple of years, I have seen a couple of truly exceptional coaches step away from the sport having seen that it doesn’t matter how ‘progressive’ the RFU say they are with regards to how best to coach, in reality the game isn’t moving forward.
I originally started my Level 2 Coaching Certificate in the North West before moving to the Midlands and therefore re-doing the course to complete my certification. In that time (around 18 months), the RFU changed the structure of the coaching levels and also changed the coaching style they believed is best-suited to develop players. The focus on player-led sessions was clear in completing my level 2 course. As long as you made sessions ‘active and fun’ and started your assessed sessions with questions to the players such as ‘what would you do?’ and ‘how would you approach this situation in a game?’ and summarised with ‘how do you think that went?’ and ‘what would you change to improve on that outcome?’ then it was a tick in the box and you were deemed a suitable Level 2 coach.
Take that learning into a Sunday at a club and I’ve watched endless, boring, repetitive drills be forced on kids from age 6 upwards. I’ve watched players stand in line for minutes at a time, in awful weather conditions, waiting their turn for an activity. I’ve seen comments online from clubs about how inclusive they are and how they welcome all abilities and then seen coaches from those clubs write only about achievement, and thrashing other sides to pieces, and how many players they’ve got into the county set up that season (ignoring that they’re the coach of that set up so it’s more than a little biased). I’ve watched coaches scream and shout that players aren’t ‘getting it right’. And worse, I’ve seen parents act in a way that will 100% encourage their kids to stop playing sport as soon as they are old enough to make their own decision on their hobbies and interests.
On Twitter, I follow various coaches and others involved in rugby around the country and not a single weekend goes by where I don’t read references to poor coaching behaviour witnessed at clubs and how it is so detrimental to the players. But come on then, RFU, where are you? Where are your coach educators? Where are the people running this game? Why aren’t you making sure that these kids get the best experience of our game?
All or nothing
My frustrations have pushed me away from the sport I love. I would love to still play rugby but I can’t commit to 3 sessions a week (and am yet to find a club who doesn’t set this expectation – suggestions welcome, please). I would love to still coach and watch rugby but I’m exhausted by having to defend my position in the face of tiresome sexism. I would love to still coach rugby but its frustrating to know that I’ve devoted so much of my time to be the best I can be for the benefit of my players and yet see the ‘old-fashioned’ styles of others just dragging kids down on a far too regular basis. I would love to help a club out by lending my marketing and administrative experience to support the off-pitch running of a club but the opportunity of a ‘job-share’ concept has never been welcomed.
It seems as though it’s all or nothing. So after 12 years, its nothing.