Claire Cruikshank

Claire Cruikshank Rexclub

Thoughts on how the women’s game has developed, and what she believes still needs to be done.

Claire Cruikshank

Photography Oscar J Ryan

The growth of women’s sports in recent years has been dramatic. More money and resources are being injected into professional games, and this change is visibly echoed in the grassroots level. Grassroots sports clubs have seen higher investments in recent years, not only monetarily but also in the form of increased time and interest, leading to higher participation rates.

Local changes start by following public examples. Huge professional sports clubs like Manchester City and Barcelona have helped to drive Women’s Football forward. Large corporations like HSBC have helped to popularise Women’s Rugby on the International Sevens circuit. Most notably, the governing body ‘World Rugby’ dropped gender naming of tournaments, the first federation to do so. Of course, the likes of Wimbledon leads the way and is the clear outlier, having both men and women athletes on equal pay.

Your playing career came to an end prematurely following an injury. Did that encourage you to start coaching?

My injury was unfortunate, as I had always envisaged myself playing for Scotland again. While I was injured, my focus changed. I started to help out with the U15 & U18 girls teams at my local club, and I found I was getting the same enjoyment and satisfaction from coaching as I previously did from playing. With the benefit of hindsight, my injury was the best thing that happened to me. I wouldn’t be where I am personally and professionally without it. I am lucky to call coaching my job.

You started in club rugby, are you still involved in grassroots rugby?

I’m not in a club, but within Edinburgh University we develop players from beginners. This could definitely be classed as grassroots, as many players have never played rugby until university.

How is your time split in a typical week?

A typical week for me starts at 6am on a Monday morning with the Performance group in a S&C session. It concludes at 11am on Saturday after a pitch session. Between then, there are two other early mornings and 2 evenings, days filled with player reviews, video analysis, analysis of our GPS data, session planning, and travelling to fixtures on a Wednesday – we can end up going to the very south of England, to Exeter!

Having been involved in women’s rugby since the early 2000s you must have witnessed a lot of change first hand?

As a particular case study, what have been the biggest changes that you’ve seen during your time at Edinburgh University?

The sport has changed so much. When I started playing internationally, Women’s Rugby was a separate body called the Scottish Women’s Rugby Union, and it wasn’t affiliated with Scottish Rugby. Bringing the two bodies together allowed for more support for the women’s game. I remember our first training programmes,

they weren’t like they are now! We essentially had to make them up ourselves in our own time, with no real guidance. I was really fortunate to go to Northumbria University and get support through their Elite Athlete Scheme, which gave me S&C programming and medical support, but not everyone is lucky enough to do that. Rugby for girls wasn’t a thing when I was growing up in the Borders; we played hockey, it’s just what you did. The boys always played rugby, though. It was at University I was first able to play rugby. I had always chucked a ball about for fun, but I’d never had the opportunity to actually play. Now it’s in schools and girls can play from such a young age, it’s great.

Edinburgh University had a new coach due to start in September 2011. When they pulled out in August, the committee asked if I’d help them out. They knew I was working for the University in Sport Development at the time..I remember it clearly, I said: ‘I’ll help you out for the first semester until you can find someone else’. Well, I’m still here eight seasons later and it’s now my full-time job! When I started, the support offered to the players at Edinburgh wasn’t what it is now. The nights they trained, the gym support offered, and the number of coaches was significantly different. It was only really me coaching, and we sessions with brand new players training alongside players who had national aspirations. No one can develop in that environment. We were struggling to get ten people to training and couldn’t field a 1st XV on occasions. Then, we got relegated and had a season in BUCS Scottish 1A in 2013-14. This was the turning point: we won 1A and the BUCS trophy, but the players wanted to push on. They realised that if they wanted to play at the next level, they needed to make some changes. We reviewed the training days, the number of coaches we had, the differentiation in sessions, the days and times of the training sessions, and the overall support and commitment that we put

into the team. That 2013-14 season was a catalyst for change that led to being crowned British Champions in 2017, and created the programme that we use now. The players at our Performance level now train for about fifteen hours a week, plus a match. I now have a raft of amazing coaches, which allows us to ensure players have the correct session for their ability. Now you can join as a brand new player and train two hours a week, or play for your country and train for over fifteen hours and travel across the UK for fixtures. Our 1st XV are currently one of the best teams in the UK, sitting top of the BUCS National League. We have a 2nd XV in Scottish 1A and provide development games for our ‘futures’ or 3rd XV. So as a club we have gone from struggling to get a 1st XV to now having a 3rd XV, where everyone has their place within the club.

On one hand you are trying to create a high performance environment, on the other you are trying to grow player numbers by making the sport approachable.

How do you reconcile these two aims?

I think the programme at Edinburgh University proves that both are possible side by side. It’s about giving people the appropriate opportunities. Some players want to play for their country, while others want to be part of the social side of things. Both are great and aren’t mutually exclusive. The key is getting programmes that can support both without trying to cross pollinate. People’s motivations are different and you need to create an environment to suit all of them. It’s not easy and it takes lots of planning, but for me it’s about passion and enthusiasm. I want all coaches within the club to be enthused and pass this onto the players. If we can just pass that enthusiasm on, then we will hopefully cover all bases and have a happy group. We also try and make sure our international players work with our new players: although they are the same age demographic, they are still role models to new players. We run a programme where all of our

Claire Cruikshank Rexclub

Through coaching, I’ve been able to travel the world, made some of the most fantastic friends, met the most amazing people, and experience the immeasurable joy that developing players brings to me.

Performance Rugby Players have to co-coach new players, alongside myself or one of the other coaches. This allows them to pass on their knowledge, but also allows us to ensure all players within the club know each other. That’s great for creating an environment where everyone feels welcomed. It’s really important that those getting great support from the University give something back to their club and peers.

You were previously Head Coach at Red Kites. How has this shaped your understanding of coaching?

Coming in as the Head Coach of Red Kites a few years ago was great. The opportunities it provided for me as a coach have been invaluable. For me, it’s always been about giving a platform to some of the best young players in Scotland so they can play 7s at a high level. What I quickly found was that by extending the player pool to those in the rest of the UK, we could enhance the player experience. By adding in some players who have played to a very high level – for example on the World Series in 7s, Tyrrell’s Premiership or different environments across the world – you can give these players an experience they would never normally get. As a coach, having these other players’ involved challenges me too. I have a short time to get to know them and pass on information, but it doesn’t change my fundamental philosophy of creating an environment that is fun. We all work hard for each other and learn and develop at every opportunity.

In 2006, you represented Scotland at the Women’s Rugby World Cup in Edmonton. That tournament has recently been renamed. Having played professionally yourself, what do you think of the name change?

I think it’s a great move, rugby is a

sport that likes to be ground-breaking and to be the first major sports federation to remove gender from a competition title is just that. As a former player, and now as a coach, I know the time and effort that goes into playing internationally for your country. To have this equality is what players deserve. Unfortunately for a large number of females, they still aren’t treated as professionals in terms of payment, and this makes the balance playing sports for a living really hard.

We’re currently undergoing great change, but what more needs to be done to keep momentum going?

The sport is changing and evolving and this is really exciting. Numbers across the world are growing, playing opportunities are increasing, support for girls’ and women’s rugby is increasing from federations. All of these things need to continue in order to develop the sport. There is a real opportunity here, and if nations continue to drive each other then sports will all benefit, globally.

Since you transitioned from player to coach, how has your philosophies about training and tactics evolved? How do you manage the team day-to- day and help them to balance rugby, work, and social distractions?

I think my view has completely changed. Even when I started coaching, I was probably copying what I saw other coaches did. Now I think I have learnt to do things my way, based on what suits me and my players. I have become really interested in coaching pedagogy and the learning styles of individuals, and love finding out how I can maximise the potential of each individual in my group as a coach. Tactically, I would say I am much more aware of this as a coach than I was as a

player. My understanding is totally different.

To help the team day-to-day, we try and keep things are structured as possible. This means that they can plan their time. If our routine changes all the time, this makes it hard for them to plan and make time. As the majority of academics takes place during the ‘working day’, we try to avoid this time. That’s why a lot of our training takes place in the morning before 9am. By 8.30am, we can have finished a S&C and a skills session, and this then leaves the rest of the day for them to focus on their studies and frees up their evenings to spend time relaxing, studying, or being with friends or family.

It’s all about balance and ensuring you know your athletes so you can pick up on things when they seem stressed or off their game. If you can develop a coach-athlete relationship where mutual trust and respect exists, you are more likely to get mutual appreciation. Each knows what to expect from the other: they understand how the other communicates, the environment they work best in, and how to maximize their strengths in the context of their sport. This is key to my coaching and something I hope we have developed here at Edinburgh.

Finally, what advice would you give to the 21 year old version of yourself?

View every change in your path as an opportunity. Everything happens for a reason and I think my injury is a great example. Without it, I would probably never have developed my passion for coaching. Through coaching, I’ve been able to travel the world, made some of the most fantastic friends, met the most amazing people, and experience the immeasurable joy that developing players brings to me.

Edited by Naomi Prakash