Rugby made its return to the Summer Olympic Games this month, back after a 92 year hiatus. Australia’s Women toppled rugby-powerhouse New Zealand to win Gold last week, and yesterday the Fiji Men battered Great Britain to take home their nation’s first ever Gold Medal. The rugby landscape has changed drastically since that time and the re-introduction of the game is a welcome sight. The USA defeated home-team France in 1924 to win Olympic Gold, shortly after which a riot broke out and organizers deemed the sport unfit for the Olympics. Since that time Rugby fans have hoped and petitioned to get their sport back into the games, and thanks in large part to those efforts, Rugby was reintroduced in the 2016 Rio Games. In 1924, it was 15-a-side, however the IOC chose to adopt the Sevens format after previous success on the Commonwealth Games stage and World Series. Sevens matches last 15 minutes and are a lot faster paced which is more suitable for spectators.
Exceptional athletes from a range of sports, including track and field, touch football and American football, seized this unique opportunity to cross over in an attempt to realize their Olympic dream. Beyond the stories of cross over athletes making waves, we’ve also heard some incredible stories of Rugby athletes overcoming extreme personal adversity in order to reach Rio and represent their country. Jillion Potter’s selection to the USA Olympic Women’s Rugby Sevens team capped the victory of a personal battle no one would wish upon their worst enemy. Recovering from a broken neck which threatened to end her playing career, only to be diagnosed with Cancer in 2014. She successfully fought the disease and stepped onto the pitch in Rio just two years later. For Ellia Green, one of the first Olympic Gold Medalists in Women’s Rugby Sevens, her mother’s courageous battle against Cancer was the inspiration to become one of the best Women’s Sevens players in the world. Team GB’s Heather Fisher suffered from Anorexia growing up, as she struggled through her parents divorce, and it almost prevented her from becoming the top athlete she is today
And in the US, Patriots fans suddenly found themselves cheering on a Rugby 7s team as Nate Ebner tore up the pitch in Rio. He too overcame great personal adversity, after his father was murdered in 2008, to get to this point. Ebner says that he is now at peace, and has found strength from the adversity he was faced with. He has used this adversity to become one of the most formidable athletes in the sporting world today.
As these stories surfaced we began to notice a theme – each of these individuals overcame personal challenges with courage, grit and an eye toward a future goal – and it’s exactly these kinds of behavioral traits and life skills that people develop by playing Rugby.
For most folks, it begins by joining a local rugby team, where simply playing the sport develops grit, a commitment to the team and personal growth. At Play Rugby USA we recognized the unique power of rugby to empower youth to realize their true potential, and for more than a decade we intentionally take the game to the kids who need it the most and empower them to live a life of vitality both on and off the pitch. We work primarily with young people who are more likely to face challenges due to their race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, health and lifestyle behaviors, because we believe that young people, particularly those from underserved communities, deserve every opportunity to be successful. We knew from the start that Rugby is a unique vehicle for empowering youth to develop skills that are applicable for them to succeed in school, the community and in living a healthy life, and after more than 10 years working in NYC, LA and San Francisco we’ve proven our program’s success.
The key ingredient in our programs are our coaches, re-imagined as Youth Development Mentors (YDM), trained with the capacity to be trusting, supportive and caring adult role models for the students they work with. Our staff understand the importance not only of what they deliver in program sessions but how they do it.
Watching and listening to a Play Rugby USA practice, your first impression would be that it is a high energy, fun, positive and engaging experience, with the YDM letting the students play, make mistakes and learn. Occasionally a YDM might offer some constructive advice to “Go forward” if a student runs in the wrong direction, “Get There” as a teammate makes a break through the defensive line and needs a teammate to pass to. These small coaching moments are examples of our Values In Action, coaching maxims that have deeper meaning, going beyond practice and games, that applies to student’s everyday lives.
Go Forward has a literal meaning on the rugby pitch, but when a YDM uses it outside of practice it encourages the student to stay future focused. Try something new, work a little harder, move past a problem, walk away from a potentially negative situation or learn from a mistake. Get There is all about support and effort, so off the pitch, students Get There to help school friends, family and community by being positive and action orientated.
We have 6 values in action that cover the core life skills that we believe will help and empower students to develop into healthy positive young people. (See here for all the VIA and more info)
We have seen the positive effects of our intentional programming including:
85.7% of students report that “My confidence has grown because of rugby”
88.3% of students report that “I feel everyone on my rugby team has equal importance”
88.7% of students report that “Playing rugby is helping me develop into a person with more good qualities“
95.2% of students report that “It is important to be honest when playing rugby“
91.3% of students report that “My coaches are people I look up to”
A powerful example of the success student’s in our program have achieved is a student that joined our after school program at a transfer high school, for over-aged and under-credited students. Having struggled at his previous school and lacking the credits needed to graduate, he joined the rugby team as way to make up for missed Phys Ed classes. After a spotty start – missing sessions, goofing off and the like – he soon embraced the game and the culture of the team. After realizing that in order to attend Rugby practice he would have to attend and pass his classes as well, he became a star student. He not only consistently showed up to practice and class but began holding his classmates accountable for getting there and earned the appointment of team captain.
Applying the skills he developed through Rugby, he graduated from high school, continued playing rugby with a local team and was inspired to give back to the sport and to Play Rugby USA, becoming a trained Youth Development Mentor. He now shares his personal experience and work with the next generation of students, teaching them the lessons he learned through rugby.
With an amazing effort to qualify both a women’s and men’s team in the Olympics, Rugby in the USA is set to take off in the coming years, and we can expect to see more children starting to play at an earlier age. The current number one team in the world, New Zealand, have a saying that “better people make better players” and this is something we firmly believe at Play Rugby USA. When given the chance, Rugby can help people make better choices in life and overcome adversity, if it is coached appropriately.
With the potential for thousands of new young rugby players out there, it is our hope that they get involved in a values based rugby program like Play Rugby USA’s, with coaches that are knowledgeable not only about rugby coaching tactics and philosophies but in positive coaching, focusing on the process, not the results, efforts over wins and losses, and fun rather than X’s & O’s.
More about Play Rugby USA
Play Rugby USA is achieving its vision of creating “A Better World through Rugby” by providing young people with programs that help them develop a vitality for life, both on and off the rugby field.The majority of children in our programs come from underserved communities where they face many barriers to achieving long-term educational and social success. PRUSA started with 75 children from a homeless shelter in Brooklyn and now supports over 5,500 young people per year with 15,000 hours of programs delivered across over 300 schools in three cities. PRUSA’s mission of “Developing Youth through Rugby” provides young people with positive pro-social participation, helps their team identity flourish, and promotes skill development and ultimately, successful habits. The innovative program is designed to intentionally deliver positive social outcomes that result in material improvements in students’ educational success, health, community involvement and future potential. Based on tying programmatic outcomes to third-party research, PRUSA is able to demonstrate that it reduces risk factors for the most at-risk youth four-fold and can generate incremental lifetime value to society each year, over 700% the cost of its respective programs.