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From Premiership Rugby to Protecting the Planet: an interview with Claudia MacDonald

Posted: 20th May 2022

On average, according to the ‘Women’s Sports Foundation’, girls have over 1 million fewer opportunities to play sports in secondary schools than boys.

 This shocking statistic is the result of fear of judgement, lack of confidence and practical pressures that causes more and more young girls to give up sports at a young age. While some do rediscover certain forms of exercise and sport later in life (that they were possibly previously put off by), many feel that factors such as having little access, social stigmas, negative experiences and a lack of positive role models hinders them from looking into sports as a way of staying healthy and improving skills, like perseverance or teamwork

In a recent interview with English Rugby Union and Wasps Ladies scrum-half, Claudia MacDonald, following a talk she led at College, we discussed the different opportunities and views on sports, and how this impacted her and drove her to take up rugby at the age of 19.

MacDonald explained that she was lucky, having “loads of opportunities to play sports when I was younger, and a family, P.E. department and coaches that were incredibly supportive”, arguably the reason that she, unlike a lot of other girls in school, felt confident enough to pursue the opportunities that arose in her future. However, MacDonald also explained that, unlike many young boys who may have “associated sport with money or fame or a career”, she “never knew really what I wanted to pursue career wise, other than knowing that I loved playing sports.”

Thankfully, she was not discouraged from this passion. At age 19, while studying in Durham University, MacDonald decided to try something new, and took rugby “very seriously from pretty early on, and secretly set my effort toward playing for England.” At the same time as studying for a degree in economics, MacDonald became captain of her university’s team

Then, having made her senior career debut in September 2017, with the Darlington Mowden Park Sharks, MacDonald moved to Wasps Ladies the very next year, before also earning a spot on England’s national team, the Red Roses. In 2019, now with a secured contract and a place on the team, she scored a try against the USA in England’s Super Series fixture, and played 80 minutes in a match against Italy later that year, from which England emerged victorious.

However, none of this came easy. After initially missing out on selection for the England team, MacDonald called coach Scott Bemand asking what she could do to prove that she deserved to get in. In response, Bemand continuously set MacDonald new challenges until she was finally invited to an England camp, where she was able to further prove her abilities and ambition.
During her talk at Brampton, MacDonald discussed this fight that she had to put up to get to her current position. This came from all around, even before she knew that she wanted to play rugby professionally. “In school, I still had a pretty muscly physique, and like most kids was super conscious of what my friends and classmates thought of me.” There is undeniably a social stigma surrounding girls in sports, with a very real form of discrimination discouraging girls from taking up sports, as they fear being bullied or experiencing a sort of social isolation for being perceived in a certain way. MacDonald felt this pressure, and was “fearful that my friends would think me a lesbian (which at the time I was terrified of) since I already ‘looked like a boy’ [because of my muscly body]”. Nevertheless, she decided to push against these negative ideas and didn’t let the fear of what people might say deter her, as she knew sport was what she loved, being “my most confident playing sport, I was good at it, enjoyed it, and hugely competitive. The older I got, the more I loved what my body was capable of doing, and wanted to challenge it to be faster, fitter, stronger […] for me, I enjoyed playing sport too much to ever stop.

This determination and enthusiasm, in addition to her physical skill, had a crucial role in MacDonald’s success. And, with this success, came a bigger platform and the task of making the right decisions. However, MacDonald openly admits, in a post entitled ‘Just Keep Talking’ on her own blog, that she, as a human being just like everyone else, “make[s] the ‘wrong’ decision all the time”; it’s an unsettling fact that many women in the public eye feel the pressure to be perfect, when of course no one is, which results in them feeling guilty, as though they’ve let someone down, and ultimately apologising when they’ve done nothing wrong — some even hide away from new opportunities, or change things about themselves that never needed to be changed, simply in order to be what others want. For MacDonald, the habit of being apologetic (which she says is “something I’m trying to change”) may not “necessarily [stop] me trying new things, [since] I’m pretty adventurous, and get bored easily. I do, however, definitely judge myself too harshly when I make mistakes, apologising for errors that will only in the long term make me better.”

Examples of this can be seen within her blog, ‘Let’s Talk 1%’, which she started about 2 years ago, in response to her increasing interest and concern for the planet; rather than continuing to ignore the environmental impacts of her career, MacDonald made the decision to become “more proactive about reducing my impacts in all the ways I could change.” She decided to use the platform that rugby had given her to spread important messages about sustainability. In her blog, she discusses some of the small changes that she is continuing to make in her daily life, like habits and mindsets, that can actually have a big impact. Her challenges and ideas range from how to pack a sustainable suitcase when travelling around the world, to figuring out how to make our own homes less wasteful, by choosing more environmentally-friendly bathroom products.

Essentially, as MacDonald puts it, “the environment is there, and it’s hugely affected by the way we live our lives. That’s a fact. You can choose to ignore it and make yourself therefore feel better about the negative impacts you’re having, or you can confront yourself, learn more about the environment and choose to change.” The blog has become a form of structure within MacDonald’s busy schedule, forcing her to continue to commit to her decision to tackle these new challenges in modern life, as well as, arguably, ensuring that she continues to use her space to teach readers about the issues we face, and how to face them.

This innovative approach definitely sets MacDonald up as a key role model — to me, at least. In fact, role models are crucial in the world of sport, especially for girls who wish to pursue it. Today, young girls are bombarded with images of perfection and unattainable ideas of what is beautiful, rather than being shown what it means to be strong (both physically as well as mentally) and confident. To many girls, the apparent need to fit the mould that they are taught to force themselves into has posed such a critical threat to whatever talents should make them stand out. This often makes them feel incredibly unimportant, as though they have nothing to offer and their achievements are worthless. When discussing what messages she wishes to convey to the readers of her blog, as well as her supporters, about taking steps to be more sustainable, MacDonald advises that we “don’t devalue the changes [we’ve] made or make, just because they seem insignificant.” We ought to remember that every single action we take, in every walk of life, has some sort of impact and consequence, good or bad, and that, even when the changes we make may seem small, the effect is still present. And, if we were to combine this with the positive impacts of everyone else’s actions, the outcome could really be monumental.

Going forward into the future, MacDonald ends our discussion by clarifying that, for now at least, there isn’t really a plan for what the next post on her blog will be. Rather, she continues to stay enlightened in a way that fits her best, “watching documentaries, or having conversations, and letting that inspire my next idea”, but that, primarily, “the blog now is more about integrating sustainable decisions into your daily life, and not being so harsh on yourself or others.”

After all, everything is a work in progress. Whether we’re nurturing our abilities in sports, or trying to overcome our own self-doubts, or learning about how to improve our way of life for a better future, we’re all still learning. And we will always continue to be learning.

By Sarah Clif, student


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