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Building a Rugby Camp for Girls and Women

By MaryBeth Mathews

Head Coach, Bowdoin College

Director, Polar Bear Rugby Camp

MaryBeth Mathews
MaryBeth Mathews

The rise of summer rugby camps for girls and women is a relatively recent, welcome and necessary phenomenon. An increasing number of youth and high school girls are finding their way to rugby and falling in love with its culture of body positivity, athleticism, teamwork and camaraderie. Many players, whether they’re new, experienced, or elite are looking for opportunities throughout the summer to hone their skills and enjoy the social benefits camps offer.

The idea of starting a camp came to me in 2011 as I was driving back from coaching at the East Stroudsburg (PA) camp. I had coached at the camp for 3 years and was thinking that while the northeast had a large concentration of high school and collegiate rugby programs, to my knowledge there were no camps for girls and women anywhere in New England. So, I took a line from Field of Dreams, “if you build it they will come,” and I built a camp.

I was a bit naive about the scope of the challenge which was probably a good thing. During the winter of 2011-12, I created a website, jumped through all the necessary legal hoops of starting a business, developed a camp philosophy and curriculum, enlisted some great coaches, and launched Polar Bear Rugby Camp, named for the mascot of Bowdoin College. Then, without the benefit of social media, I set out to find campers.

My coaching philosophy has always been about building relationships, so, in addition to sending emails to coaches, I went to regional tournaments all over New England and New York, handing out flyers and talking with coaches and players. Parents hovered in the background listening, and I quickly realized how important it was to gain their trust - the trust of knowing that the camp they chose would take care of their child. The numbers were low at first, but testimonials from campers confirmed that the camp had a market. Slowly but surely over the next few years, Polar Bear Rugby Camp developed a solid reputation for having great coaches and delivering a unique rugby experience.

Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Lemal Brown

While my vision was to create a rugby camp focused on girls and women, I had to initially launch the camp as co-ed in order to get the numbers necessary to support operations. This is a good commentary on the landscape for girls and women’s rugby in 2011. However, I am happy to say, that after several years, we were finally able to make the change to a camp exclusively for girls and women. We were also able to now offer coaching to serve a range of players, from fairly new, enthusiastic high school girls to collegiate All-Americans looking to take their game to the next level. We help all players learn to assess their abilities, create short and long-term goals, and think more broadly about playing rugby. We also encourage our older and more experienced campers to informally mentor our younger campers. A critical part of our camp philosophy is making the program accessible regardless of an athlete’s ability to pay. Using promotions, team discounts and scholarships, we find ways for a diverse group of campers to attend.

Overall, I am proud of the camp. It was challenging, but as we enter our 8th year of operation we now have an established program with a good reputation among players and coaches. We have instituted a Coach Development Program, which serves as an opportunity for coaches to increase their knowledge and reflect upon coaching styles that are athlete-centered. I’m confident the industry of summer rugby camps will continue to grow and my hope is that the business side doesn't eclipse the high-value educational opportunities created by camps for girls and women.

To learn more about Polar Bear Rugby Camp, visit our website.

To learn more about the national rugby camp landscape, visit The Rugger’s Edge.

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