by Stefania Evans
I moved to Boston to learn more about rugby. Turns out, I learned even more about life.
Only a few short weeks ago, I got a message in my inbox that seemed crazy. Terry (Pledger), my coach for two amazing, US-based, roaming teams (Rogue Samurai and Old Breed) had seen that Beantown, a team in Boston, MA, was on the lookout for forwards for the upcoming Women’s Premier League season. He thought I might be interested. I immediately said no, for a bunch of reasons; I’d just moved from North Carolina to Essex, England, being the most obvious one, plus I’d never played at such a level before. In fact, I’d never played anything close to it. I’d spent the previous year playing for the Bragg Women’s team in Fayetteville, NC, during a building year where the club played exclusively friendlies outside of the matrix…so technically, I’d yet to play in ANY US division, much less something above Division 1. I had played a bit back when I was younger, in Canada, where I’m from, but that was a good nine years and change before picking it back up last year with the Bragg ladies… and it seemed silly to think that now, while pushing 31, I was going to make some crazy comeback, much less at such a level. Plus, I had tried out for a few select sides at the beginning of 2018, and didn’t get selected (though I did get some very good feedback that changed how I approached the game, thank you!), so I kind of figured that was that for me and competitive rugby.
The biggest reason I initially said no, though, was that my first thought was “I could never do that, I’m not good enough”. I didn’t even mention it to anyone for a few days, as there didn’t seem to be a point, but when I did end up telling my husband, Gaz, about it, he was incredulous. “Why WOULDN’T you go?”, he asked me, and I didn’t really have a good answer to that. I knew logically that there was really no loss in going; worse case scenario, I get sent home- at least I can say that I tried, and I wouldn’t be wondering ‘what if’ sometime down the line; or, they let me stay, but don’t select me to play in any WPL matches, which still would be a win – I would be practicing alongside a caliber of player I’d never experienced before, potentially playing in some B-Side matches, and have the opportunity to be coached by a truly prolific coach. I looked more into the team online, and read about Beantown’s new coach, Mere Baker, a former Black Fern who played in the very first season of the WPL herself, and boasted an impressive coaching record with teams all over the globe. I decided that, crazy as it might seem to go, it would be far crazier for me to not take such an amazing opportunity and miss out on learning from such an experienced icon in the sport. The smart decision would be to shelf my ego, take a chance, and throw 100% into a whirlwind season in Boston…so that’s what I did.
Fast forward to now. On the other side of that decision, I can safely say that it was one of the best ones I’ve ever made; these last weeks with Baker and the Beantown girls have completely blown my mind. I’m so lucky that I was able to make such a decision; luckily I have an incredibly supportive spouse (who was cool with me chasing my dreams on the other side of the world for six weeks!). He truly made it possible, and having amazing friends and family who psyched me up and followed along every step of the way made it seem less insane. It was hard – at times, really hard. There were moments where I felt exhausted, felt like I’d never be able to keep up or catch on, felt certain that I’d never get it. I IMMEDIATELY wished I were fitter, and much more experienced…and my knees wouldn’t have minded being about seven years younger. I realized that whatever talent I had, I’d not developed properly – I’d snuck by on being large and strong, never thinking about things like footwork, or moving defenders, or looking for real space. I struggled to wrap my head around a system that wasn’t just forwards on one side, backs on the other. I watched in wonder as my new teammates moved in patterns I’d never seen before, caught uncatchable passes, threw missiles across half the pitch, ran un-defendable lines, and generally seemed to know what the hell was going on. I’d never been pushed so hard at practices or in games; I found out what real exhaustion felt like, and what it was like to push past it and keep going. I began to believe I was capable of more than I had given myself credit for. Baker held me accountable for my mistakes, for my thought process, for how prepared I was (or wasn’t), for my lacking skillset, for the absence of my game knowledge; she wasn’t afraid to show me what needed improvement, and demand that I improve. She told me exactly where my shortcomings were, and my new teammates showed me what fixing those shortcomings could look like. Every player seemed to have a different story, different ages and experiences and skill-sets, and we were from all over the place- and yet I felt immediately welcomed, supported, and accepted. If my teammates were disappointed with their newest addition, they didn’t let on – instead, they went above and beyond to help me understand drills, show me how to improve my technique, and always made sure to tell me if I’d done something correctly. They helped me get to practice, helped me workout in the gym, helped me study opponent games and showed me what to look for. Nobody laughed when I asked insanely basic questions; they seemed to genuinely want to help me understand. In all of my rugby experience, I had never felt so fully invested in. I didn’t want to let this crew down. I began studying tape in my spare time, asking as many questions as I could, biking to the gym in the mornings and running on nights off; I was going to give back to this team if it was the last thing I did.
The first few minutes of sub play I got on the WPL pitch was against Atlanta. My team was tired; it was a hard, hot game, and I wanted to make a difference. The very first thing I did was trip over my own laces and fall down in open field. The second was to take a penalty, in our own 20, because I didn’t understand a rule well enough. I’d gotten a shot, and I’d let my team down. I replayed those 25 minutes over and over in my head on the flight home; I’d come all this way, and as much as I worried that maybe this meant I’d been right in the beginning to think I couldn’t carry this off, I didn’t want to let myself off the hook that easily. Not after everything my coach and my teammates had put into me. Maybe I wasn’t good enough, but that didn’t matter anymore – I’d just have to find a way to be better. I kept at it, and kept my chin up, and things started to come together. I watched as much tape as I possibly could, and it started to make some sort of sense. I subbed in a few more matches, and I didn’t fall down all by myself again, (though I still took some stupid penalties!). I felt less lost at practice and in games, and a few weeks later, when I stepped up to start against DC, I felt things starting to click. I wasn’t always in the right place, but I could feel when I was in the wrong one now. I was helping more than I was hurting, and it felt great. A few weeks and a few matches later, we were back in Atlanta for Nationals, and I found myself lucky enough to be wearing jersey number 1 – lucky enough to lead my team onto the pitch through the smoke and the USA Rugby tunnel onto the pitch. Standing next to them, hearing their anthem, I struggled to hold back a tear or two. I was so, so glad to be stood on that pitch, wearing those stripes, and so honored to be next to every one of them.
I can’t really put into words what this experience has given me. I’ve learned so much about rugby, of course, but I feel like a lot of what I’m taking away from this can be applied to all areas of my life. I’m tougher than I thought, more resilient than I gave myself credit for – and the next time something crazy floats my way, I’m definitely, absolutely, going get out of my own way and give it 100%. Here’s what else these weeks have taught me; I hope that they help inspire someone else to get out of their own way, to say yes to something that at first seems too crazy. After all, life just gives us the door – we’ve got to choose to walk through it.
- If someone with knowledge and expertise believes in you, let them. If they see something in you, if they tell you that you can do it: listen to them, really listen. Don’t talk them, or yourself, out of it. Don’t come up with a list of reasons why they’re wrong, or an explanation of why it’s not significant, and call that humility. It’s not. So often, especially as women, we respond to compliments, or other’s confidence in us, with reasons why whatever was said isn’t true. We tell whoever complimented us that they are better or more; we say things are no big deal when they are, in fact, big deals. We tell ourselves it would never work, we’d never pull it off, we’re too this or too that or too everything, but THANKS ANYWAYS, right? We think we are being humble, or maybe we just don’t see what they see in us. Stop doing this. I’m not saying you should have blind faith in just anyone’s opinion, but if someone is knowledgeable about something, and sees potential in you, do not minimize it.
- If you are given an amazing opportunity, take it. Yeah, sure, you never know when you’ll get the opportunity again – and that is a real, actual thing to consider – but more than that, you never know where it will lead. Saying yes to one scary, but exciting thing can lead to even bigger, even scarier, but even more amazing things, things you’d never have dreamt of in a million years. If you’re given the option, always put yourself in the path of greatness, even if it’s scary, even if it’s crazy, even if it seems impossible, even if you don’t think you deserve it. You never know what will happen if you let yourself be in the right place at the right time.
- Don’t self-sabotage. Sport, like most things in life, is very much a mental game. Feedback doesn’t always come in the forms we’d like it to; we can’t control how criticism comes our way, or when. Don’t take it personally. Always ask yourself if what is being said to you is true; if so, regardless of how it was delivered, take it on board. Always remember that all feedback, if coming constructively from a knowledgeable source, is a gift. What you do with that gift is up to you, but if you refuse to open it because you don’t like the wrapping, you’ll never know what’s inside. I think this tends to happen when something strikes a nerve within us, and we find it hard to see past the sting. As someone who has struggled the majority of their life with body issues and disordered eating, I’ve always found it incredibly difficult to not shut down when sport-based feedback about my fitness, or my body, was given, but that never made the feedback not true, or not necessary. I’d immediately want to panic, worried that I’d been called fat, feel ashamed, and stop listening. Shutting down instead of leaving my ego at home and paying attention was my problem, and my loss. I’ve learned over the years that if I’m told that I need to change my body in some way, become stronger, or faster, in order to achieve my goals, that’s not an attack on me as a person. I have value, regardless of what shape or form my body is in; I have the choice to either change my body to meet my goals, or adjust my goals accordingly. Whatever your weak spot is, whatever you’re insecure about: don’t let it get in the way of listening to, and taking on board, feedback that you need to hear.
- Be a team player, and I mean this in every sense of the term. Of course, as athletes in team sport, we know it’s important to get along with the people that we play with. Forging bonds with the women that we step on to the pitch with creates cohesion, and increases the chances of our gameplay going off cleanly; if we know how our teammates play, how they move, how they think, and them us, we get used to each other’s styles and habits, and can put ourselves in the right places at the right times to support each other. But being a team player goes beyond that, really. I think being a team player means being there for the people around you off the pitch, as well. If you see an opportunity to help someone, do it. Whether that means passing on hints or tips to improve their play, helping someone get to practice or games, offering a place to crash, or putting someone in contact with a team or coach or club that would help them achieve their goals. Whatever the specifics may be, always, always do it. The women’s rugby community is growing, yes, but it’s still quite small; the sport needs us to give more than we take. We are all in this together, and we all need each other. At every level, we need numbers to play with, and numbers to play against, and subs for those numbers, and coaches, and admin staff, and b-sides, and youth teams. There’s no room for jealousy or selfishness here. Share, help, promote, support. As someone who has recently been on the receiving end of SO many people in this incredible, amazing community going the extra mile to make this experience happen for me, I can’t tell you enough how empowering it feels, and how much it inspires me to pay it forward in any way I can.
Stefania Evans is the founder of Ruggette, a clothing line for female rugby players. She also helped Beantown RFC finish in 9th in the 2018 Women’s Premier League standings. Follow Stefania on instagram @StefaniaSaintLondon or on Facebook @Ruggette. You can learn more about Beantown Rugby Football Club on Twitter and Instagram @BeantownRFC or find them on Facebook at Beantown Rugby.