Despite a love for the Six Nations, I didn’t start playing rugby until my second year of university. I’d told myself that year’s Freshers Fair that I wasn’t going to join any sports, because I didn’t have the time. However, a friend from my secondary school was now club captain and so I agreed to attend the new players event and I fell in love with the game.
I had previously always partaken in individual sports, throwing hammer and shot putt since age 13, and in some way, I had decided team sports weren’t for me. Although I hate to admit it, I was so wrong. A sports team so quickly becomes your family in a way only people who only see you in workout clothes and compare bruises with can.
Recently I’ve moved abroad to study in America and immediately I joined the rugby team. Distance from my friends, family and my normality, has been difficult. A generally introverted person, I would never know as many people as I do without it. Rugby pulls me out of my bed and provides a family I would be lost without. They tease me, praise me, mock me and always keep me laughing.
But it’s also more than that. Rugby has done wonders for my mental and physical health. The physical is probably self-explanatory, and what you would expect when someone decides to bring constant exercise into their life. But the mental side is less obvious. Through rugby I have met people I would never otherwise interact with, who I now care about deeply. Having a place to go regularly, where I had the space to forget my own stresses, has relieved my anxiety immensely, made my own problem-solving skills better and my reactions more considered and thoughtful. I’m also less critical of myself and rugby in no small part has helped me fall in love with my body.
Yet there remains a significant imbalance between genders playing recreational sport. There have been incredible moves towards getting more women and girls into sport and there is a growing acceptance of female strength. But still only 7% of televised of sport is female and just a quarter of high school girls play sport compared to a half of boys. What is more worrying is that entering their teens, girls are twice as likely to drop sport. There is a precedent within young girls to abandon sports and we need to encourage them to stay with it. It is not good enough to wait for these girls to grow to be women and hope they take it up when they are older, in college or later. We need to normalise females playing sport, for whatever reason they choose to do, because it does genuinely change lives. We need to allocate time within our lives for sport, to show young people, exercise is a fun, enjoyable, meaningful part of our lives to provide an example, and the workplace and schools should change to adopt this as the norm. I am obviously advocating team sports, but any sport is a positive and will benefit the individual to an infinite degree. How you play sport does not need to be spectacular, young girls can be the next Serena Williams or not; we should not require exceptionalism, competition is not necessary, what is important is the benefits sport bring and letting all people know there is space for them in sport and they belong within it.
I bruise like a peach (thanks mum for those genes) and so throughout the winter and into spring, my legs are constantly shades of blue, purple and everything else. But I love it. They remind me of my strength, what I can do, of the movement I’m part of and how incredible this body I’ve been given is. That pride bleeds through to every worried face who sees a bruise as I proudly pronounce when they ask if I’m okay I say, “I’m fantastic, I play rugby.”