Below are some reflections on the project I was working on last term with a school rugby team (U16s) I coached. An introduction to it all can be found here. My general reflections and some other details about the project can be found here. I also reviewed the areas of Mental Health and Emotional Well-Being that we addressed in this initiative and those reflections can be found here:
In this piece, I am focusing on how we looked at the issues around Gender Dynamics and to see how we could use sport, rugby, as a way to address these.
Rugby dressing rooms are about three main things: be physically tough and don’t share your emotions; drink as much as you can and; get as many notches on the bedpost as possible.
When I heard a former professional rugby player (above) warning the room full of coaches about the environments we were sending the players we coached into, something made me sit up and listen. I could not fathom how we could just prepare good rugby players but unhealthy people.
Such criticism is not new and I recognised the dressing rooms he described as being quite similar to the ones I had occupied as a player. It can be hard for players to break free of those expectations that are imposed upon them. That is why I felt it was important for coaches to try and address this.
I would also like to add that some of my closest friends came from such dressing rooms and that it would be wrong for me to paint the picture that they were entirely caustic places to be. They were not. They were fun. You laughed. You cried. You limped to ice baths. You tore off strapping and launched it across the room at someone. Mud. Steam. Deep Heat. These were places where often you forged lasting bonds and were prepared to work tirelessly for each other. These were places you became part of something bigger than yourself. So I want to be clear that this project is not a sleight at those spaces I played in or against those people I played with – I just think we can do a lot better.
Russell Earnshaw and John Fletcher of ‘The Magic Academy’ often ask the question: ‘What will the game of the future look like?’ and they build their sessions around trying to equip their players with the skills and behaviours to be able to thrive in that game. I suppose what I am trying to do is imagine what the rugby club and dressing room environment of the future will look like and to ensure it is better than what we have offered so far. To build on all those great values that team sport can give people and to ensure it is one that is a healthy and nurturing one for both men and women.
Throughout the season, in team meetings or on our online platform, we would often post clips of games from International matches, Champions Cup, Gallaghers Premiership, Pro 14 or the International 7s Series. These always seemed to really engage the group and was a clear way to get them to study the game outside of just playing it. We might draw their attention towards certain skills, patterns of play, missed opportunities or good decisions made.
This year was the first time I used footage that involved female rugby players, especially in the 7s game. Often we would post some of these clips side by side with those from the men’s game and analyse them for what they were: rugby.
One way of promoting female role models was to share the story of Heather Fisher, whose success on the pitch was born out of plenty of struggles off it. Her openness about her issues growing up and those she still faces today was empowering for us in terms of addressing all three areas of the project: mental health, emotional well-being and gender dynamics.
One of the real highlights of the project was having a guest coach come in to take a session. Dr Anna Stodter, a player with Saraceans and Scotland and a coach with Cambridge University, spent a day with us during the season. The players were really impressed by her and took in so much that she had to say and the experience was invaluable. A few of them were asking for her YouTube highlights later on that evening but had to settle for watching some of the best women’s rugby in the Tyrells Premiership Final from 2018 instead.
Anna is a lecturer in Sports and Exercise Science at Anglia Ruskin University. As coaches, we learned so much from someone who has played at such a high level and is coaching too, pursuing her Level 3 this year with the RFU. With Anna being a lecturer and a coach, it was also great to see a ‘Pracacademic’ in action! If you are a coach of any sport, get someone else in to take them and see how they respond. Sit back and you will see players in a different light entirely.
The Varsity Match:
While introducing role models and coaches in the game who happened to be women proved really successful, one of the high points was taking the team to a live game of women’s rugby. We did this by going to watch Anna’s Cambridge University take on Oxford University at Twickenham in December. For some, this was their first trip to the home of English rugby and for almost everyone, it was their first time to see a live women’s game. And what a bruising encounter it was! Bone juddering hits, bloodied noses, try-saving tackles were all the order of the day as Cambridge managed to get one over on their varsity rivals.
Areas of Development:
Talking About Masculinity
While we had some discussions around masculinity and what it meant to be a man, I am not sure whether we got the depth or quality I would have hoped for. These discussions were often enlightening and allowed for the team to explore these issues in an environment that would be new to them – a sports team. Some of the pressures that the group expressed they felt they faced as young men were as worrying as much as they were intriguing.
I steered clear of using the term ‘Toxic’ throughout this entire project mainly because I wanted these young men to have the chance to redefine some of those attitude towards masculinity that have warranted such a term. I do wish we maybe explored this in some greater detail however, perhaps exploring how some of the behaviours leveled at people have been deemed toxic and how we could educate young men about such incidents in the hope of learning from it. Maybe even exploring aspects of culture that is corrosive and toxic by either women or men could also have been a way to discuss this with the group.
Another area I feel would have been worthwhile would be to have discussed the area of consent. This would have been a good way to explore some cases that have been perceived to be an example of toxic masculinity and how the issue of consent was possibly blurred in these cases.
It would have been useful perhaps to open up this discussion to other female members of staff for them to voice their viewpoint on some of these issues. Perhaps we could have asked Anna to be a part of this when she visited and possibly could be something to consider when having guest coaches come in.:
I would like to declare myself as someone who is learning each time I conducted these sessions about gender dynamics to my players. To provide some context, I once ‘mansplained’ what a Super Injunction was to my friend Chloe who is a qualified barrister – sorry Chloe, I will never live that one down. I also do not know enough about women’s rugby and have learned a huge amount throughout this project. Later this year, I hope to do some coaching of a women’s side, something I have never done. I hope to continue listening to women’s experiences of sport and some of the issues they face.