Running with the ball

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Written by Martyn Sloman on 1 October 2012 in Interviews

In the first of an occasional series about career paths, Martyn Sloman talks to Penny Chapman about her role as a rugby coach

Penny Chapman is a confident and articulate mother of three children who lives with her husband in a rural area of Norfolk. She is keen on team sports: "I have always been a keen sportswoman; I have been involved in lots of sporting activity and love keeping fit." However she has never played rugby. Nevertheless, she is now one of a very small number of women in England who coach rugby at higher levels: she works for the Rugby Football Union as a development officer and community coach, and is the joint first-team coach for Holt Rugby Club in North Norfolk.

Her progress illustrates how commitment and perseverance, and a certain amount of chance, can help in developing an unusual career.

When asked why she enjoys the game, Chapman stresses the core values of respect, sportsmanship, discipline and teamwork. There is no doubt about her passion for rugby: "My children play, my husband is involved in the game, I coach on a voluntary basis and developing the game is my full-time job."  However, the most important expressions of that passion are her practical actions.

In February, in the middle of a cold and rainy spell, Holt participated in a miserable and ill-tempered game against local opposition. It was not well-refereed and the players became increasingly frustrated. An unpleasant physical confrontation took place between the two teams at the final whistle and it looked as though it would develop into a full-scale brawl. Chapman rushed on to the field to separate the two teams and shepherded her Holt players away from the opposition. Her comment that "women are best at stopping fights" was a rare introduction of gender considerations.

Holt is an ambitious club that plays in the London North East Division 3. It is proud of the fact that a current English international scrum-half, Ben Youngs, is a local boy who emerged through its extensive youth and mini teams. It is a friendly club and Youngs was on the touch-line watching the game on the Saturday after returning from England's ill-starred World Cup campaign in New Zealand. Norfolk is a county with traditional values and Holt attracts many farmers and farmers' sons, like Youngs, to its playing ranks. A recent black-tie dinner held to celebrate the club's 50th anniversary was attended by some 150 people but women were conspicuous by their absence.

Chapman fell into coaching by accident. After leaving school at 16, she worked for a bank before moving to a job in sales for a company that provided training in Microsoft products. Although she delivered some training herself, she had no appetite for pursuing it as a career. She and her husband Sean both enjoyed team sports: he had played rugby for the Metropolitan Police, where he worked.

When their eldest son was old enough to play mini-rugby, they went to the local club, Stockwood Park in Bedfordshire, and helped support the mini-team.  Stockwood Park obtained a place on an RFU Level 1 coaching course for her husband but he was unable to attend due to an accident and Chapman took his place. When she realised that she was the only woman among 50 men on the course, she admitted that she felt some anxiety: "Fear was the dominant emotion." This came, not from concerns about how she would get on with the other participants - she has always been a self-confident communicator - but from the fear of failure. She was easily identifiable and felt she needed to be better than the others to be accepted as their equal. Being seen to struggle to meet the requirements of the course would be both evident and embarrassing.

However, she secured the qualification and this set her on the path that shaped her career. She coached and refereed at mini-rugby levels and was noticed by the local Premier League rugby club, Saracens: "I carried on coaching on a voluntary basis. Saracens often held open events for children - tag, non-contact rugby at half time during the senior games. The club approached me because it felt I had a good relationship with children and it liked the way I was refereeing. It invited me to help with its half-time events for the price of a ticket and some kit."

She sees the move from referring to coaching as an obvious progression. She says a good referee will always be seeking to encourage and develop the players. This is especially the case at junior levels. "The idea is to stop players making mistakes by talking to them and guiding them during the game. A referee should try to facilitate play and, wherever possible, allow the game to continue. You should never be quick to blow the whistle, which players see as stopping their enjoyment. Hence the best referees are always coaching."

Subsequently, Chapman acquired a coach education qualification accredited by a private provider, CTS, which allows her to teach at lower levels. She has found this teaching qualification the most useful in shaping her outlook and approach to coaching. At present, she is debating whether to move on to the next rung of the ladder of coaching qualifications (Level 3). This would give her additional status and respect within the game. But she is by no means certain that this would make her more effective in developing the team and its players.

As her career developed, she successfully applied for the job as a development officer for Norfolk for the RFU. In 2007 she was approached to become joint coach for the Holt team: "When I took my children to the club, Holt quickly found out that I had credentials. The chairman came to me and said: 'Do you know we are looking for a new coach? Is there anyone you can recommend?' I said: 'Yes, me'. I think he was a little shaken at the idea of a woman coaching a farmer's club."

Since then, her profile in the game has risen continuously. Most recently she was asked to train, coach and select the Swedish women's rugby team for the forthcoming European Championship: "They were looking for people to help with the women's side. A former colleague recommended me - with an endorsement of 'not only is she a good coach, but she would be an excellent role model too'."

An obvious question to be asked is how a woman can succeed in such a male-dominated environment. In fairness, the RFU is actively seeking to encourage female participation in England and a bursary (for women who are coaching, refereeing or playing) was made available to Chapman to secure her Level 2 qualification. She responds that, once she had overcome the initial curious reaction, the battle to win players' respect was no different from that which any coach would face. However the more difficult challenge was getting some of the older-established club members to treat her in an appropriate manner.

Describing the behaviour of one of these 'blazers' she said: "I had a breakthrough this year when he introduced me to someone as the coach. In my first season, he described me as the nurse; in the second, he referred to me as the physio (I have no physiotherapy qualifications). We won promotion in the third season so I became the lucky mascot. Now, at last, I am being described correctly."

But this acceptance is based on success on and off the field. At the heart of Chapman's approach is her view that attitudes are influenced by behaviour: "My behaviour has spoken for itself. The achievements of the players and the way that they respond to me as a coach, not as a woman, speak volumes. Gender is not an issue because my coaching is not an issue. They may not always like what I ask them to do, but it is the same with every coach."

It is evident that her role is as much about change management as about coaching. Her biggest challenge came in getting a change in approach. There was a degree of resistance to the more professional way that was being introduced by Chapman and her fellow joint coach, Ed Steed, who had been a highly regarded wing three-quarter in Norfolk.  A good example was the move from once-a-week to twice-a-week training, which met with some initial opposition. Other features of the more professional, organised approach involved the introduction of isotonic drinks, and the use of ice baths to assist those recovering from injury or over-exertion.

Most visibly, the style of play has also changed. Traditionally Holt aimed to 'stick the ball up the jumper and run straight at the opposition'. With this playing style, fitness levels were not so important - indeed, you could argue that being grossly overweight was a positive advantage. Today, under Chapman and Steed, this has changed to a more expansive and attractive style that has brought success. Building on its promotion last season, Holt is currently at the top of its league table.

Chapman uses a conceptual model that trainers would recognise. It is one she adopted as a result of attending the CTS course and describes it thus: "Plan/do/review. You begin with observation and analysis - for example, where a player places his feet or his body-position. This is followed by fault correction. Next comes a short time for reflection for the player and his team mates."

This model is more than sufficiently sophisticated for the task in hand. To an extent it is a directive model - players are told where the fault lies but then are expected to correct it themselves under guidance. Importantly, it is a model that can be delivered in a short space of time.

Though professionally self-confident, Chapman is modest and understated when she talks about her capabilities. However colleagues are more forthcoming. Ben Jones, the coach of Holt's under 13s team, said: "She is an extremely good motivator and her team will live or die for her. She is a people person with enormous enthusiasm but she can channel her energy to the right places. She displays an unusual knack for engaging and encouraging players."

Chapman is the forwards, or pack, coach, with Steed looking after the backs. For the non-rugby reader (if you've stayed with it so far), the forwards are the more physical but slower eight-man unit that does the heavy work of winning and securing the ball and also undertakes a lot of defensive tackling.

During each of the twice-weekly evening sessions, Chapman will spend most of her time working with the forward pack as a unit, concentrating on team drills - for example, the line-out and scrum. Only rarely will she work with an individual player during these sessions. The time available is very limited: in effect, one hour on Tuesday and one on Thursday.

At one time, our training profession seemed to be infatuated with sports coaching. There was a ready market for famous athletes and their coaches to impart their wisdom for a considerable fee. However, the important difference between working with a team as a unit and working with individuals was rarely discussed with any degree of seriousness.

Chapman stresses how important it is to avoid preconceived ideas of an individual's strengths and weaknesses and his willingness to work at his game: "Every player is different and must be treated as an individual. Outsize players can use their bulk, but others need to be encouraged to develop their techniques." She feels that she has strong questioning skills and is very good at setting objectives. She admits to still having some residual hang-ups because she hasn't played herself 'but this is my problem, not the players'.

Having followed Holt from the touchline, I would put it differently. Her most important attribute is the credibility she has achieved with what, at the end of the day, is a voluntary group; the players always have the option of leaving Holt and joining another local club. Chapman achieves this credibility through the quality and relevance of her observations and an ability to communicate them in a supportive and non-threatening way. To a degree, she is using an approach that we would recognise in our organisations. The context, however, is very different and, in many respects, more challenging. It is to her credit that she has succeeded.

Photos by Stuart Young

About the author

Martyn Sloman is visiting professor at Kingston Business School and principal consultant to TJ's L&D2020 project. He can be contacted at


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