Inspirational Woman: Catherine Spencer | Former England Women’s Rugby Captain

Catherine SpencerI am a former England women’s Rugby captain with 63 international caps to my name, now retired I am taking on new challenges one of which has been to set up my own company Inspiring Women.

What is your sporting background?

I first started playing rugby aged 8 at my local club Folkestone. 28 years ago it was very unusual for girls to be playing rugby so I was causing a bit of a stir even then! I went on to play club rugby for Folkestone Ladies, then county, regional and after university following a series of trials I got in to the England set up. I won my first England cap in 2004, became England captain in 2007 and played in two World Cup finals (one as captain).

What have been your biggest achievements as an athlete?

I think that one of my best achievements has to be captaining the team to victory against the New Zealand Black Ferns in 2009 at Twickenham. They were the then World Champions and had not lost a game since 2001. It was also my 50th Cap, I scored the only try of the game and was awarded player of the match. It was shown live on TV and was a great day for the team and individually I did not have a bad day at the office!

Can you pin point any key milestones or significant memories in your sporting career?

One of my first milestones I guess was when I was still playing mini rugby so I must have been aged about 10. My team were playing in a festival; I was playing on the wing in those days. The ball was kicked down field by the opposition; I caught it cleanly and sprinted down the pitch back towards the opposition. It was the first real time that I did anything positive on the pitch and the first time that I had real confidence that I could play the game! My Dad and older brother were watching and also remember that moment!

Another moment I always remember is when I was taking part in England trials. I was on the same team as the England Captain at the time Paula George. I was on the subs bench so was not on the pitch. Paula had just been swapped off and came and stood about a metre away from me and I remember thinking that just standing near her was amazing!! I never got on the pitch that day but it always stands out as one of my significant moments in my career.

Another key milestone for me I think was again when we played New Zealand at Twickenham in 2009, following the game one of the members of the team came and congratulated me on the way I had captained that day. When I was first selected as Captain back in 2007 she was not my biggest fan so it meant a lot to me that she said that and I know it took a lot for her to say it.

Do you consider yourself to be a Role Model? Have there been key figures that have influenced and/or inspired you?

There used to be a weekly rugby programme on telly called Rugby Special. It never featured any women’s rugby however one week there was a lady called Gill Burns that appeared in the studio. I must only have been about 14 or 15 when I was watching the programme but I remember thinking that she was great. She was then the England Women’s captain and also played number 8l; little did I know that I would also appear in tv studio’s in the future as England captain and number 8!! Seeing her on the show was the first time I had any real knowledge of an England women’s team existing but seeing her definitely inspired me. As I was breaking in to the England set up Gill was coming towards the end of her career. I played for England ‘A’ against an invitation team that Gill was playing in. All I wanted to do in that match was tackle Gill and I did! I don’t remember anything else about the game except that! I know Gill pretty well now and she is a huge inspiration to me for what she has done on the pitch as a player but also off the pitch as an ambassador for the game.

Accepting that you are a role model yourself is a really difficult thing to do; the first few occasions that you are asked for your autograph or photo feel very strange. It is a tough process to associate such value with yourself and to understand that people want to hear from you and meet you however I look back at moments in my past when I had met members of the England team before I was in the set up or met other sporting stars and then it is easier to process. It is lovely to hear from people that they have been inspired or motivated by something that I have said or done. It is also very humbling but once you are in such a privileged position it is important to use it properly.

What are you doing now? Are you still competing in sport?
Catherine Spencer

I retired from International sport and then retired from premiership club rugby just a few weeks ago so now I have officially retired from competitive rugby! However I am hoping to run a half marathon in September of this year and then potentially two marathons next year. I took part in a mountaineering challenge last year and just last week I rowed for 12 hours round the Isle of Wight! The need to challenge will always be there; it is just a case of finding different outlets. I have done quite a lot of media work commentating or as appearing as a pundit in the studio; I have started to do a lot more public speaking which I really enjoy and have built my own business.

How has sport influenced other aspects of your life?

Sport has massively influenced my life, I definitely would not be the person I am today without the skills and experience gained by participating in and captaining within a team sport. It has increased my confidence and provided me with motivation to better myself and keep challenging myself mentally, as well as physically. I founded my business, Inspiring Women, as a direct result of the time spent as an international rugby player and captain. Both because it has provided me with the confidence to take something like that on but also because it opened my eyes to some incredible stories and people within the sports and adventure world and I wanted to provide a platform to share this to a wider audience which is what Inspiring Women is.

What do you think that the world of business and the world of sport can learn from each other?

In the rugby environment it is widely known that Clive Woodward introduced business models and techniques to help to develop the programmes and processes around the Men’s England team which then arguably helped them to lift the World Cup trophy in 2003 however I believe that business can also learn from sport. From my own personal perspective I think that leaders should be allowed time to develop within the business environment, it certainly took me two years before I felt fully comfortable and confident as captain. Sport also demonstrates the need for different personalities to make up successful teams and highlights the importance of utilising strengths of different people within the team at different times. Sporting individuals learn how to cope with dealing with pressure, how to maximise output, how to manage time and so on. I think that business can also learn from coaching techniques used within sport to encourage development within their workforce and to encourage cultural change if needed.

I think that business can also learn from coaching techniques used within sport to encourage development within their workforce and to encourage cultural change if needed.

What have been the three most significant areas of personal development that you have gained through your sporting career?
  • Confidence is probably the biggest area of development for me; I would not say that I was particularly unconfident when I was growing up however sport and particularly captaincy taught me how to carry myself and how to present myself to an audience. It was vital to use every opportunity to promote the sport in a good light and as Captain I was key to that.
  • Playing international sport requires a huge amount of effort behind the scenes from training in the gym to eating the right food to managing your work and life balance and so on. I used to train with England prop Sophie Hemming as she lived very close to me in Bristol. She inspired me and taught me to manage my time. She was a full time vet but made sure that every single training session was completed every week plus extra. She was incredible and there were never, ever any excuses. She was always ready to start training in the gym or out on the field at 7am even if she had been up half the night on a work call out. She got to the top of her game and became one of the best props in the world because of sheer hard work. She does not realise it but she inspired me so much and now when I am struggling with work load or to manage my time between different demands I think of Sophie!
  • My rugby career has definitely helped me to develop my own emotional intelligence as well as of increasing my awareness of the people around me.
If you could go back in time would you do anything differently?

It would be easy to say that I would make sure that we won the World Cup in 2010 however I genuinely feel that if we won I would be resting on my laurels now and not pushing myself in business. The only thing I would do differently though is to understand the value of the contacts and network that I was building at the time, especially as England captain. It is only now as I am building my business that I recognise the importance – I wish I had known that earlier.



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