Inspiring Women

Catherine Spencer Interview

Catherine Spencer Interview


Having captained the women’s England rugby team, Catherine has spent considerable time in the company of inspiring women. Now retired from professional sport, her desire to help and inspire others to achieve their potential is taking her on a whole new journey. This is how she got here.

What or who in your life inspired you and why?

When I very first started playing mini rugby it would have to be my family as back then it was very unusual for girls to be playing rugby. I used to play rugby alongside my twin brother, my dad used to play too, as did my older brother, and my mum has always been very sporty so they all gave me the confidence to follow my instincts.

Later on when I was growing up, I would have to say it was Sally Gunnell. I bought all her autobiographies and used to watch her avidly on TV – back then I think she was one of the few female role models that the public had access to.

In rugby terms it’s a woman called Gill Burns. Like me, she played number 8 and captained England, albeit some years ago, but did an incredible amount to help start women’s rugby. When I was about 14 I saw her on the TV show Rugby Special, which in itself was an achievement for a female player, and I can remember thinking what an amazing lady she was and how that was what I wanted to do someday.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve experienced?

There are so many challenges that come along throughout your career but I think for me it was when I became England captain. Although I knew personally that I could do it, I was a fairly quiet player and, for many people, probably wasn’t the natural choice. It was important that I quashed anyone’s doubts in me and I did that by making sure I grew in confidence in my role as captain and as an individual player. Sometimes you just have to accept that you’re not going to please everyone and that meant I had some pretty tough moments as captain. It took the full three years for me to become totally comfortable in that role but by the end of it was I was fully confident in my abilities and really enjoyed it.

What was your lowest low and how did you climb out of it?

It has to be in the 2009 Six Nations. We lost to Wales which, without disrespect to Wales, was a massive shock. We were winning all our games at that time and, whilst we did have a few players away playing in Sevens, with the team we fielded that day we still should have won. I came away from that game as the first team captain to lose against Wales; I felt so low that I daren’t go out of my flat for about a week. Ironically it was the period we had after that which felt absolutely fantastic as we all came back from it stronger. Some of the girls in the team had never experienced being on the losing side before whilst wearing an England shirt and that’s a hard lesson to learn. As cliché as it might sound, sometimes you really do need to experience those lows to make you realise that you never want to go back there again.

How did you find the self-belief to achieve what you did?

Although I had that moment when I saw Gill Burns on TV which inspired me to push on, I think I only ever looked at the very next step in my career, both as a player and as a captain. When I played minis, I looked towards playing in a women’s team. Then when I played at Folkestone, I wanted to play at County level and so on. I think its brilliant to have big dreams but it’s much more believable if you realise you can only get there by achieving one step at a time.

When did you feel like you had achieved your goal?

In some ways I didn’t as I never won a World Cup which was a massive goal of mine; I played in two World Cup finals and lost out narrowly to New Zealand in both. Also when I won my first cap for England that was an incredible experience which is still so vivid in my mind – I was on an absolute high as I ran out onto the pitch representing my country but very soon after I realised that was only the beginning.

However you have to look at your whole career and I feel that I achieved a lot in terms of helping the women’s game grow. In 2010, at the home World Cup, I was fortunate enough to be captain and during that time the profile and media interest in women’s rugby rocketed. Both as individual players and as a collaborative squad, we did a fantastic job of being ambassadors for our sport, boosted by coming so close to actually winning the competition. It’s very hard when you’re in that situation, playing for your country or going to the Olympics, to appreciate your own achievements because as far as you’re concerned it’s all very normal and it’s just what you do. I used to get told off for being too modest and playing myself down so I always tell players now to take a few minutes out to be proud of what they’re doing, as it is an amazing achievement and being proud of yourself is not being arrogant.

Who is the woman that you admire most and why?

There are so many women that I have a great admiration for but I think it has to be one of my England team mates, a lady called Sophie Hemming. She still plays rugby for England and we used to be training partners in both Bristol and Bath. As well as playing for her country she is also a full time vet. I remember being at training at 7 o’clock in the morning and she’d tell me she’d been up at 3am to attend an emergency at some farm; yet there she was at training and on time. Her commitment and desire to achieve was absolutely phenomenal and that really drove me on. Sometimes I hear other people say ‘I can’t do this because of that’ and it always makes me think of Sophie and her work ethic. To know what effort it’s taken her to wear that white shirt on her back I can only wish her great things for the World Cup 2014.

What advice would you give to other women about self-belief?

I think sometimes women do have a tendency to show their lack of self-belief more than men. I’m not saying that men don’t also feel it but I do think they’re a bit better at covering it up! The trick is to be confident in yourself and accept that it’s ok to have belief in your own abilities. As I said earlier, in my role as captain it took me three years to get there and strangely, since I’ve retired, my confidence and my self-belief in what I did back then has continued to grow. It’s nice to be able to reflect and think, yes, I did a pretty good job. When you’re in the thick of it you do often focus on the things you didn’t do so well – in sport you can do one hundred good things on the pitch but when you come off afterwards, I can guarantee you will focus on the one thing you did badly so it’s important to step aside, remind yourself of all the great things you are achieving and focus on the positives.

What lessons have you learned that you could share with others?

I think the main thing is to set realistic targets and give yourself a pat on the back when you do achieve them. If you experience setbacks long the way, just accept that they are all part of the journey and will only make you stronger. It’s going that extra 1%, showing that extra bit of commitment.

Also it’s important to separate you as a person from you as a rugby player – although at times they do merge, you really have to be objective about your performances and realise they’re not a reflection on you as a person.

Is there anything you would do differently using the wisdom you have now?

I was relatively quiet when I first started out so sometimes I wonder if I could have pushed myself a bit harder at some of the clubs I went to but then, if I had, I wouldn’t be who I am now. I genuinely don’t think there is much I would have done differently, even when I look back at some of the decisions I made as they all form part of the learning process. Apart from not winning the World Cup back in 2010, which would have been my dream, I’m pretty happy with the way things have turned out.
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