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Rugby Teaches Our Little Girls How to Tackle Life’s Big Challenges

Finding the balance between keeping our kid’s safe without holding them back. Confessions of a recovering Mama Lion turned Women’s Rugby Fan.

Illustration by: Alex Martino
Illustration by: Alex Martino

“Get out of your own way” is a mantra on a mission.  A call to action urging us to face our fears and get in the game.  We can’t allow fear to stand in the way of our success. It’s challenging, but we’ve got this. The true test is honoring the adage when it comes to our kids. We want to protect our babies from the scary stuff, shield them from pain and stand in harm’s way. Consequently, we end up standing in the way of their future too.  We’re in flux as Mama Lion and Papa Bear, ferocious protector and guardian. We’re equally committed as their teacher, imparting confidence, resilience and independence; the by-products of “sending them back out there.” What a conundrum. No one said it was going to be easy.

My family embraced life’s trials and tribulations one day at a time. My kids found reassurance with repetition; I found reassurance in chocolate. We celebrated successes and rallied around failed ones. Bruised knees and egos were kissed away and made better. Time progressed as did the challenges. The ante was upped with each passing year. By the time the teen years hit, my daughter was small in stature but big in moxie. Pint sized David would now take on Goliath worthy giants. Life’s next chapter would swap runny noses for bloody ones. I felt a mix of pride and terror. There wasn’t enough chocolate in the entire world to brace myself for what was next.

The first surprise came when my daughter joined the high school football cheerleading team. She was a kid who loved being in the middle of the action. Cheerleading for the most part happened on the periphery, cheering from the sidelines. Huh? I knew she would get more enjoyment, however, from actually playing the game. The opportunity finally presented itself in the form of girl’s club rugby. I hoped she’d do the math and conclude that at 5’1” and 115 pounds, she was setting herself up for failure. You’re at a disadvantage trying to bring down a Mack truck when you’re a mini coupe.

It took five words for me to change my mind. “Don’t hold me back Mom.” My favorite mantra had come home to roost. I raised my children to be self-aware, resilient to stereotypes and boundaries. I stood in the way of that very lesson. I fought all the images in my head of my daughter being flung around the field like a rag doll. There’s also the fact that rugby players don’t wear protective gear. There is a “helmet” for those who’ve suffered concussions. It looks like a 1950’s bathing cap and about as useful.  My husband and I agreed to investigate the club and spoke with the rugby community. We learned how rugby had positions suited for all shapes, sizes, and talents. My daughter had found her tribe. When we finally relented, there were tears of joy. She was home.

I managed to white knuckle it through most of her first rugby season. She played on the varsity team as a freshman. It was exciting and terrifying, exhilarating and agonizing. I cheered on the team, managing to do it without exhaling. I could breathe when the game ended. I took solace in knowing she could outrun most of her opponents. She played wing and earned the nickname Rabbit for her speed and size. It was when she played defense and tackled everyone and anyone that made my heart palpitate. She miraculously made it through most of the season unscathed. Cuts and bruises, jammed fingers, but no serious injuries.

The season was coming to an end. One of our last games and fiercest competition fell on Mother’s Day (oh, the irony.)  We were up against a team notorious for playing dirty. My anxiety was on high alert. There was the added tension of having my mom, dad, and mother-in-law in tow, watching their granddaughter play for the first time.  Mother’s Day brunch would follow, but I hoped we’d serve up a win first. Within the first few minutes of the game, there were unnecessary injuries and fouls.  Our team however remained consummate professionals, playing with honor. It was a close game, but by the second half our players were dropping like flies.  

My daughter took possession of the ball in the next play. We cheered like lunatics as she crossed the field, a few feet away from scoring a try (think touchdown in football.)  I relaxed, believing she was in the clear, when an opponent comes out of nowhere. I’ve watched her get tackled dozens of times before, but this was different. The other player picks up my daughter before slamming her on the ground. It was like watching a WWE move. Her head bounces off the ground twice from the sheer force. I gasp in unison with the two Grandmas. Concurrently, one of our other players is punched in the throat while already down. The crowd is in an uproar protesting the egregious and unsportsmanlike conduct.

In the frenzy, no one notices my daughter is hurt. I watch as she unsteadily gets back up on her feet. She slowly runs a few steps and falls over sideways. She’s moving as if the ground beneath her is tilted. Fall, get back up, repeat. I realize the zig zag disoriented progress she’s making is towards the action. This isn’t an attempt to get off the field but determination to keep playing. I can feel my primal instincts take over. I am Mama Lion, hear me roar. Thankfully, I keep my composure a few seconds longer and coach is at my daughter’s side. It’s confirmed she has a concussion. The recovery process is long. The last month of school is missed and we’re far into the summer before she’s fully healed. Fear fuels my conviction to keep her safe and away from rugby permanently.        

Famous last words. Time heals and gives enough distance for unbiased reflection. I embrace rugby again and its important life lessons. Rugby empowers girls by its challenging nature. It’s a game built around falling and getting back up. Contact in sports is a foreign concept to girls. It’s in opposition to how we’re raised.  Consequently, when first hit, girls freeze up like deer in the headlights. Those same girls are transformed into warriors by season end. They’ve replaced fear with a fighting spirit that leaves spectators awe struck. Rugby also redefines how women value themselves in society. It celebrates every shape, size, and player. Each member is chosen for a position that maximizes her skill set. The team relies on everyone’s unique contribution, whether it be speed, strength, defense, or agility for a collective win.  It’s equality that reframes and reshapes our girls’ view of self-worth. When we teach girls self-acceptance and love, they no longer see boundaries but opportunities.

My daughter enjoyed three more successful years of club rugby. Her grit and dedication earned awards, wins, and a team captain position. She amassed an equally impressive collection of bruises, x-rays, braces, and crutches. She was proud of her war scars and frequently wore shorts to school, showing off turf burns with pride. I figured if child services hadn’t come knocking at my door by now, they too were rugby fans. The sport further broadened my daughter’s experience with a tour to Scotland.  Her team had the rare opportunity to play at the birth place of the 7’s game (7 players on 7). There was a moment during the tour when my daughter was stiff armed in the face. Her nose bled profusely while coach and I checked for broken bones and teeth. We found no issues, plugged up the bloody spigot and sent her back out to play. I was officially a veteran rugby mom. Who are you and what have you done with Mama Lion?  Rugby provided more memories and comic relief.  My daughter sported her first black eye shortly before year book senior portraits. She thought it would be hilarious to have her shiner preserved in year book infamy. I did not. The photo session was rescheduled. Senior year and her rugby career ended with emotional goodbyes. There were many moments of “I’m not crying, are you crying?” as we’d become family. Coaches, players, and other parents, had forever bonded over blood, sweat and tears quite literally.

Today, my daughter is a college freshman and rugby spirit, determination, and perseverance continue to guide the way. Her first few months were laden with obstacles including health complications.  Symptoms of exhaustion, migraines, and dizziness didn’t make the transition from high school to college easy. The diagnosis wasn’t as surprising as hearing she wanted to change universities. Unhealthy and unhappy were a troubling prognosis, but a script my daughter could flip. It would be no small task to make those changes on her own. She was capable, but that didn’t ease my concern. Once again, supporting my daughter required hands off. We had instilled in her the capacity to handle hard things. We raised her for this very moment, to fight until you succeed, try and try again. (Rugby try of course).

I’m happy to report that my daughter tackled those challenges head on and is thriving. The hard wins show us what were made of; we’re emboldened to take on whatever stands in our way.  It’s tough out there and even harder on our girls.  We can raise a generation relegated to the sidelines or those unafraid to get in the game. I’m rooting for a world where little girls are encouraged to tackle big problems. Future leaders who aren’t afraid to take down obstacles, stereotypes, and inequalities, making women unstoppable.

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