5 Lessons Rugby Taught Me About Fatherhood

by A Manly Guest Contributor on December 9, 2010 · 47 comments

in Fatherhood, Relationships & Family

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Andrew Wyns. Mr. Wyns is the Executive Director of Bridges of Greater New York, a transitional housing program for men struggling with addiction and being released from prison.

The sport of rugby finds its roots in soccer. According to legend, in 1823 an English school boy caught a soccer ball during a game and proceeded to run down the field with it toward the opposition’s goal before he was tackled. Today the game is played in nearly 100 countries and holds a world cup every four years with the top 20 ranked teams in the world. Rugby is a full contact sport played with minimal protective gear that requires a very high level of cardio fitness. It is truly the “man’s sport.”

I began playing rugby a few months before my first child was born. I had two black eyes at his Christening, but I was the proudest man on the planet. I have always taken pride in being a man’s man, but as my son grew up I had to learn how to be the man’s father. There is nothing that causes a man to grow up faster than having a baby. As I grew in skill on the rugby pitch, I learned five important lessons that have assisted me in growing as a father.

1. Every Team Needs a Captain

Like in most sports, rugby teams each have a captain. He calls the plays. He negotiates with the referee. Most importantly, he encourages his team to victory.

Every child needs their father to be the captain of their team. Your children are looking for direction. They need someone to set the standard on how to act and react to the obstacles that they will face. Somewhere along the way someone got the idea that we should be best friends with our children. There is no lack of short people to befriend our children; what our children need is for us to be the leader. When fathers do not take a proactive leadership role in their children’s lives, the children still follow whatever negative behavior the father has exhibited.

2. Teamwork Is Vital

Rugby is literally the most complete team sport ever. It takes all fifteen players to score and every player needs to know how to play all fourteen other positions.

As fathers, we need to build a team with our children. Not to be mistaken with being their best friend, building  a team with your children means being their companion as they navigate the difficulties of life. We cannot solve all their problems, like bullying on the playground and figuring out the complexities of the opposite sex, but we can be by their side through all of those events. It is the father’s job to offer leadership and companionship, listening to their children’s frustration and pain as well as pointing them toward the light at the end of the tunnel.

3. Firmness Is Essential

We have a saying when it comes to playing defense in rugby: “Bend but don’t break.” Unlike football, rugby does not rely on a certain amount of yardage needed for each play. Rugby turnovers only happen when mistakes are made or the ball is stolen. A good defensive team can give up yards as long as they don’t allow the opposition to break through their line and get behind the defense. It is firm but not rigid. A rigid defense snaps when pushed too hard, but a firm defense will bend but not break.

As captains and team players, fathers have a great need for firmness. Children don’t need a father who is milquetoast, who folds at every pressure that comes his way. On the other hand, children don’t need a father who is so rigid that they never get a chance to fail on their own. Children need the opportunity to fail. My son needed the opportunity to eat too much chocolate one Christmas so he could finally learn that there can be too much of a good thing. Experience is often the best teacher, and if we protect them from everything, our children may never learn why they shouldn’t do certain things. Yet if we allow them to do everything they want, we do not show leadership. As fathers we need to set a standard for our children and direct them. We need to learn to live in the tension between being too soft and being too hard–the balance between bending and breaking.

4. When You Get Hit, Get Back Up and Keep Running

Rugby is an 80 minute game of continuous play. It has been said that a rugby player needs the strength of an Olympic wrestler and the stamina of a tri-athlete. When the ball carrier gets tackled, the play doesn’t stop. The ball carrier must release the ball while other players fight over possession. Once possession is won the tackled player must spring back up to his feet and reinsert himself into the action again.

As fathers we will fail. We will make mistakes. I remember the times when I was too soft. I remember the times that I was too rigid. I have often sat with my head in my hands feeling like a complete failure as a father. But it is never too late to start over. In those times when we come up short we need to get back up and get back into the action. Our children are expecting it and looking forward to it. It shows them our humanity and our strength. Our failures make us better team players and our comebacks make us better leaders. If they see our perseverance as fathers they will model it in their own lives.

5. Be Committed to the Whole Game

As I mentioned earlier, rugby is an 80 minute game. And what compounds the strenuous nature of the sport is the limited number of substitutes–a maximum of 7– that each team is allowed in a single game. There are no line shifts; the offensive line is the defensive line. Rugby players must be committed to playing all 80 minutes and dig deep to finish the game.

As fathers we need to have that same commitment. Quitting is not an option. Yes, single mothers have been successfully raising children for years, but just imagine how those situations would have been improved with a father who was committed to the job. Our children need us to be there for the whole game.

Rugby has been the most rewarding sport I have ever played but being a father has been the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life. What I learned from rugby has made me a better father: being a leader and a team player, being firm and recovering quickly from failure, and most of all, being committed to the end.

{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sean Fagan / JottingsOnRugby.com December 10, 2010 at 1:43 am

Good piece from Andrew. In 1823 in rugby you could handle the ball & carry it backwards, just not run with it forwards. Not wishing to quibble, but it is probably more accurate to say that soccer (which was created in 1863) is a derivative of rugby that banned handling of the ball, rather than the other way around.

2 Zackary D December 10, 2010 at 1:57 am

Wonderful piece mate! I’m not yet a father, but I’ve been a rugger for a few years now and it’s taught me numerous lessons off of the pitch. It’s also taught me just how easily ears are torn off…

3 Brandon December 10, 2010 at 5:08 am

This is very inspiring. I’m not a father yet, but the reality that I need some more preparation was weighing on me a couple of days ago. Time to find a local Rugby team!

4 Marlon December 10, 2010 at 5:19 am

What a tremendous article! Astoundingly inspirational. Like others, I am not a father yet, but still found this incredibly relevant, and I’m sure its something I will come back to. I have printed off a hard copy to keep so I can read it again when the time does come.

5 Marko_London December 10, 2010 at 5:42 am

Lovely piece. And hooray for rugby. It has taught me a great deal about life too. It is widely regarded here in England as not even a sport, as it is far more important than that!

Incidentally, @Sean Fagan, football (aka ‘soccer’) has it’s roots far further back than 1863. That is when the rules were formalised by the Football Association. The sport dates back about five hundred years to days-long games of entire villages kicking a pig’s bladder (or, on occassion, head) to the other’s village.

Football has since become a far less masculine game. And today has become a gentle game for savages. Whereas rugby was, and is, a savage game for gentlemen.

6 Andrew Lale December 10, 2010 at 6:10 am

Excellent article. I would like to add a few lessons rugby has taught me. Don’t argue with the referee- sometimes the call goes for you, and sometimes against you. Play the same way when you are 50-0 down as you do when you are 50-0 up. Learn something from every game. Play rugby rather than work rugby- if you keep that spark of playfulness alive, it always stays fun no matter what the scoreline. Never take a grudge off the field- when the whistle blows, you are all participants in the greatest game on earth.
Just a note about rugby history- RFU, Aussie Rules Football, Rugby League and American Football are all derivatives of a game called Village Football that has been played in parts of England for many many centuries. Half the village would be on one team, half on the other. You could carry the ball any way you liked, or kick it. Scrums were used to protect the ball while moving it. It was very violent, and was banned by the authorities on a regular basis. Aussie rules is probably the game most similar to the original…
Thanks again for the great article.

7 sjb December 10, 2010 at 6:32 am

That is pretty moving stuff there. Good job

8 James Crouch December 10, 2010 at 9:26 am

Unlike previous posters, I AM a dad, and a regular player – in fact I can now boast that I play in the same team as one of my sons, making me one of the luckiest Rugby dads around.

I wholeheartedly endorse all 5 lessons, but would moderate on lesson 1. Sure, your kids do need a ‘leader’, but if you are a loving leader then there is no reason why you cannot also become a best friend too. As I hope I am to both my grown-up sons – the younger (who I play rugby with) and the elder (who used to play a pretty mean game himself!)

9 Robin December 10, 2010 at 11:56 am

Look Yanks, you need to stop using the word ‘rugger’. It is simply a slang word for ‘rugby’. It does not, and has never, meant someone who plays rugby.

10 MarylandBill December 10, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Rather than say that Rugby developed from soccer, or vice a versa, it is probably most accurate to say that they both evolved from the less standardized football of that had existed for centuries.

11 Jon B December 10, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Maryland Bill, the peacemaker. :-)

As a dad of two little girls, my two cents is that Andrew is spot on. I know my firmness will continue to be tried as these sweet girls grow older and learn more on how to wrap me more around their little fingers. Without a solid anchor to hold to in fatherhood, it’s difficult to get through those harder days (and nights!). These lessons make up a good part of such an anchor. Thanks!

12 Kurt December 10, 2010 at 8:22 pm

There’s an old adage:

Football (soccer) is a gentleman’s sport played by hooligans,
Rugby is a hooligan’s sport played by gentlemen.

Personally, I love taking on an opponent, spending 80 minutes beating the piss out of each other on the pitch, and then buying each other a beer and sharing a few laughs after the match. Truly unique in the world of sports. I can’t think of a sport that I would rather have my future son(s) play. Except maybe hockey (I am Canadian after all).

Oh, and legend has it that William Webb Ellis was the man who picked up the ball in Rugby, England when he got bored with soccer. I don’t know of any other sport has such a specific genesis story (whether or not it is entirely true is another debate).

13 Mr. Jason December 10, 2010 at 10:03 pm

On playing the whole game: Back when I played in college, number 3, we had this ref that always answered “40 minutes” any time someone asked how much time was left. It pissed me off but I got his point and stopped worrying about the time.

Go All Blacks!

14 nolan December 10, 2010 at 10:55 pm

Amongst the most valuable lessons my father passed on from the hardships he endured during the great depression were from my rugby experiences and team mates.
15 years ago I helped organize a high school league in in hopes that others and hopefully my own son and daughter would choose to play.
Both played and continue now that they’re in college.
It has allowed for great bonding opportunities and twice the time I would have had with them.
This gift of time spent with them was the greatest gift a sport could have ever given me.

15 spike December 11, 2010 at 1:27 am

After playing hundreds of games from the 60s into the 80s and now observing how the game has changed a bit, I am reminded that someone once said that “The best thing is to play a game of rugby and win…….and second best is to play a game of rugby and lose”. The comparison with fatherhood and family is a good one, as in rugby our teammates, opponents and acquaintances become a brotherhood.

16 David December 11, 2010 at 9:54 am

I am not a rugby-er, and I grew up with the presence of a father figure that was not a leader, not a team player, not a coach, and not a mentor. I also grew up in a church family — go figure?

But, I did enjoy this article. I don’t like pain, so I doubt that I will be a rugby-er going forward. Never had a broken bone, never a stitch, and never experienced pain, so I don’t know what I could teach someone. Lets see the 5 rules? Yes, I think they are all correct way to live. I know someone upstairs must be watching out for me. When I see other rugby-er’s, I just stop with a whole lot of respect! Men! Leaders! Doesn’t have to be father-son! Men in society, and me too, like to be led and to lead others. I also like to be a rugby-er, cuz there’s no women on the sidelines. That should be rule #6, Men need a break from women.

17 Steve December 11, 2010 at 12:26 pm

I did not start playing rugby until I was 45. My kids were 19 and and 15. Your points are very, very well-taken-particularly the part about as a father you don’t need to be your child’s friend. They have lots of friends. They need you to be their leader. It’s a common problem I see with a lot of parents when I see parents negotiating with their kids throwing a shit-fit in the store. I was very strict with my kids, as was my wife. Now, my kids are 23 and 19, and are nice young adults.

Raising a family is not a democracy, just like on the rugby pitch, it’s not a democracy either.

18 Steve December 11, 2010 at 12:34 pm

PS-I like your web site and I am going to book mark it on my site.

As a 50 year old, one of my biggest concerns is that men have forgotten how to be men in this country. (I know, I am a nurse and a guy, but follow through with me on this)
I look at how boys are failing and not achieving in schools. I look at the drivel that 40+ years of hard-core feminism have given us. When you work in a career field with mostly women, you hear a lot of complaining. If you look at shows like Oprah, or The View, you get the feeling that women don’t want a man, they just want another girlfriend with a penis. On one hand, I hear coworkers gripe about there being “no real men” to date, but then when you hear coworkers with sons talk about how they don’t want their sons to hunt, fish, or play rough physical sports, it just makes you shake your head.

19 shagdbachooka December 11, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Like many of the above contributors I played through the 70s-2002 and my younger son has now taken up the cudgel on my behalf, same position, same team, same drinking buddies! we drink and he plays with my cronies sons.
The lessons I have passed on to him ….always stick up for mates on and off the pitch, always respect the ref. even though he may be a blind and deaf!. and never get caught at the bottom of a ruck when playing the welsh!
The game engenders the true spirit aboutt how sport and life should be played.
Stay honest but play hard.

20 Aitch December 11, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Its great to hear you guys embracing ‘the gentlemans sport’. I’m 40years old and from England and have played since I was 8 and beleive rugby teaches the principles of life: Honour, discipline, respect; it embraces toughness but with bondaries of fair play that are universally adhered too. I have played a high standard of rugby and what I love is that wherever you are in the world you can go to a club; get a game or just have a beer but feel welcomed by other decent guys with similar philosophies..

21 Lindsay December 11, 2010 at 9:07 pm

I agree wholeheartedly with this article. I started playing at age 35 here in Ontario, Canada and still mucking along at age 64. I play with an old boys team but am not the oldest on the squad by a long shot. That honour goes to our 77 year old loose-head prop Billy. The camaraderie in rugby is “non-pareill” as the French say.

I have made many friends in the U.S., Australia, N.Z., England, Scotland and Ireland. It is truly a global band of brothers. One of my sons played high school rugby before he embarked on a college and international hockey career. He will return to the game of rugby in a few years. Such is the attraction of this game we love. Most of my friends and his friends have some connection to this magical sport. My other son informs me he watches all of the 6 Nations & Fall international rugby matches at the “Scrooge” pub in Seoul, Korea with ex-pats from many different countries. Truly an international game and one that binds me closely with my boys.Enough said.

22 Trapper in Florida December 11, 2010 at 9:22 pm

This is well written and accurate………I have forwarded it out to my lists, approx 4,000 names………well done Andrew!

23 Tim December 12, 2010 at 8:44 am

As a father of two boys (3 and1), a former player, and team captain, I enjoyed this article. Rugby is a truely great sport that supersedes all others.

24 Dave December 12, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Great piece. As a new father I’ve often thought about what virtues to pass on to my son and how to pass them. Rugby is an excellent teacher. I think I’ll skip teaching him some of those rugby songs we used to sing though.

25 Richard December 12, 2010 at 12:51 pm

This article is just another example of new age drivel and it was so soppy,I could hardly finish it. I think the feminists would have something to say about solo motherhood being improved by the presence of a father. Unfortunately for society there are too many instances where the opposite is true.
I grew up in New Zealand where a long hard game of rugby was followed by a long hard session in the pub or clubhouse. I don’t think my qualities as a father were enhanced by the state I often ended up in for the rest of Saturday night and for most of the next day.

26 Jerry December 12, 2010 at 3:08 pm

I’m from Fiji. A country where men are not considered real men unless you’ve represented in Rugby whether it be school,Local area, island, village,whatever…. you name it, we’ve got a rugby competition for it..Rugby is part of our culture here and even though we haven’t won the !5′s world cup (coz we’re defending 7′s champions), just supporting our boys brings the whole country to a stand still. Bosses give time off etc, People literally will stop what they’re doing to watch our boys in action

This article truly takes takes that spirit and allows one to apply it to not only their family life but also life in general.

Great job man.

27 E Mark December 12, 2010 at 4:21 pm

I played a long time ago, but the lessons remain. Now in my 60′s, I have, hopefully, learnt a few things, including a real Father can not be his son’s best friend. That’s not because of the Father’s will, but it is because of the son’s. If Dad is boss, the son will not see it as friendship, yet it may be the best friendship of all. Learning to respect authority, appreciate those with experience and believing in a dad who truly has your better interest in mind are great lessons any son should learn.
Great article, no foul, play on.

28 Jim December 12, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Just to set the history straight. Football had its origins with the Romans resulting in what is sometimes known as “village football” played for centuries in England. William Webb Ellis did pick up the ball & ran with it in 1823 “with a fine disregard of the rules”. In 1831 the Blackheath Proprietry School opened & adopted this new form of football & played on the famous nearby heath (site of the Wat Tyler revolt). In 1858 my club in England Blackheath FC was founded by old boys of the school as an open club, thus the first rugby club without restricted membership. The date may actually have been earlier but record keeping was not the best at the time. Blackheath FC played a leading role in establishing the Football Association & the Rugby Union. There were almost every variation of rules followed at the time so Blackheath FC pioneered its own code of rules & these were printed in 1862. The famous rule 10 stated “though it is lawful to hold any player in a scrimmage this does not include attempts to throttle or strangle which are totally opposed to the principles of the game.” Blackheath FC played rugby on the heath in public until such time that the spectators proved to be too unruly & the club moved to a private facility known as the Rectory Field where the first international matches were played. Rugby is still played at the Rectory Field to this day & Blackheath FC is still an active.club with about 21 teams As I recall the football or soccer followers split off from the rugby followers sometime in the 1860s & thus the two sports went their own respective ways.

29 Dai Vaughan December 12, 2010 at 5:43 pm

I agree with the Kiwi. Drivel. The best thing about rugger was the orange slice at the end and the boozing that followed (that was in the 60′s). I was a skinny wimp and a poor player, only fit for winger and/or full back of a low-level team. But I willingly tolerated the pain for the booze and the women.

It is/was a very social sport. Is it still that way?

30 Dai December 12, 2010 at 5:47 pm

PS: The origin of rugby was in Wales. One village would challenge the next to carry a sheep’s carcass over an imaginary line running broadside form the opposition’s village church.

31 Pat Reagan December 12, 2010 at 7:32 pm

Yes, I can say that my happiest memories relative to sports ( I was very fortunate to have played football for USC in the late 50′s – that’s 1950′s) was when my son, Pat Reagan, Jr (scrumhalf) and I (flanker) played in the same Orange County RFC Rep Side Team. He was 19, I was 41. And as Nigel Wray, owner of Saracens, said, “if more kids were playing rugby (sports) there would be less muggings of old ladies in the parks.

32 Henry "Da Bull" Roop December 13, 2010 at 4:07 pm

What a super article!! Rugby is indeed an incredible sport. It is always exciting and so much fun to play. I’ve tried my hand at high school, college, and professional football, had a small stint in boxing, and nothing compares to rugby. We are a team. We are a core. We are one. We are a brotherhood. I started playing rugby while at Ole Miss going to college, and have been playing from age 19 to now 53 years of age. I have 2 grown children. As I read the article, rugby does teach a man about Fatherhood, even though he may not know it at the time. I salute all my mates that I have played with and against. All the trips to the hospital, the stitches, the blood, the sweat, and the bruises. They were all worth it. Rugby Forever!!!

33 Tighthead December 14, 2010 at 2:32 am

A couple of observations made over the years:-
“While Soccer is a game for Gentlemen played by hooligans, Rugby is a game for Hooligans played by Gentlemen.”
“Rugby, a game where you advance the ball by passing it backwards.”

34 Charlie December 14, 2010 at 10:54 am

I hate to nitpick when the sentiment of the article is so good, but rugby did NOT find its roots in soccer!!

The creation myth is apocryphal at best, but the story is actually that a youngster at Rugby School was playing an earlier version of the game (where the basic game was to wrestle for possession of the ball then kick it towards the goal) when he decided to break the rules and run while carrying it. What is certain is that at the time the prestigious schools each played “football” to their own peculiar set of rules, but around a century and a half ago efforts were made to standardise these so that private clubs and universities could play against each other without arguing over the Laws. The Football Association was the first serious body to be formed, but its proposed game didn’t suit all tastes (and still doesn’t! :-), and many schools and clubs preferred to play “the Rugby way”, going on to form their own union, the Rugby Football Union.

35 Jimbo December 14, 2010 at 1:15 pm

Having played rugby, which is far tougher, and American football the lessons are the same. Life is tough and life is going to knock you down. Being able to get up and keep on going is something every kid needs to learn from their father. I would say another thing sport like rugby teaches is putting others ahead of yourself and do your job to the best of your ability even if there seems to be no reward because ultimately there is a payoff we sometimes cannot see. Class is another thing I learned. You win gracefully and you lose gracefully. Doesn’t mean you have to like losing but you do so gracefully and with class. I hate the current taunting mentality so many in sport possess these days, particularly in American sport. Winning gracefully is to accept the fact you might be on the losing end one day and wouldn’t want your nose rubbed in it either. Think classy and you will be classy.

36 mattie P December 15, 2010 at 3:56 am

a great article.
being in the fourth generation of rugby players on both sides of my family, it means rugby is as much a part of family as christmas or easter. but it also means that those I have had the plesure to play alongside have in instances become like family.

37 Manny December 15, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Thank you for such an amazing article! I played hockey my entire life, from 3 years old through 4 years of NCAA, and this article resonates in the hockey world as well. It is wonderful to see somebody understand all the great life lessons that can be retrieved from team sports, especially a sport as manly and physically demanding as rugby. Thank you for the fantastic insight.

38 Jonathan Manor December 20, 2010 at 10:46 am

Yeah, i was only scouring through this post and read number 4. But it hit me well. You know a blog post hits you when you start thinking about specific events in your life that you really could’ve done a lot better.

39 Jonathan Manor December 20, 2010 at 10:49 am

did my comment go through?

40 Sam December 20, 2010 at 6:38 pm

Great article!
Im not a father but ive been playing rugby competitively since i was aged 8 for a club and during my school years, at least 3/4 times a week during the season with games every Saturday and Sunday. Rugby is a sport id recommend to everyone, it has made me the man i am today, from the action on the pitch to the antics with the lads in the bar afterwards. I still play today and many of the bonds ive made on the pitch are ones that will remain firm for life.

41 Justin Smith December 21, 2010 at 9:10 am

Thankyou for this, My Father left when i was 8 years old so i was raised by my mother and had no Positive Male Role Models, When i have Children i want to make sure i can give them the role model i never had, This artical is a great bit of advice on how to do that.

42 Jeff Basiaga December 23, 2010 at 12:44 am

Great artical. Thanks from writing it.
May I add: sing with the players after game, and sing to your child?

Jeff B.
UM Rugby 94-98
Father ’09

43 Russ December 23, 2010 at 6:27 am

In rugby union I think you will find that the ball is in play is less than half the 80 minutes of the playing time.

A lot of time is spent walking to lineouts & setting & resetting scrums etc.

44 Capt. Bob January 7, 2011 at 3:34 pm

The piece is right on! Fatherhood and Rugby forever!!!

Rugger from the 70′s

45 RogerWilco November 27, 2012 at 2:36 am

The greatest lesson rugby teaches is acceptance of people. From medium hight fat props, short fat hookers, tall lanky locks, normally build flankers, tall built eighth men and thin to medium short to tall back liners, rugby has them all. It’s truly a game for everyone and in South Africa, we learn the bounce from birth and play from 6 years old. My son is 5 and can judge the bounce already, round balls I think confuse him a bit though, the bounce to straight, but that’s why there’s cricket. Nothing beats Super Series rugby (come on February!!!). Oh, and to russ, a lot of time is wasted in walking to line outs and reset scrums, but don’t believe wikipedia in thinking half the game is wasted, watch a New Zealand/South Africa game (when both teams are firing) and tell me there’s wasted time, wasted time is for school boys and finals, not the big 3 unions.

46 elkclan January 9, 2013 at 4:13 pm

Lovely story. I’m a mom and new to rugby. But I’ve been taking my son to rugby and I’ve started playing myself (after a drunken pledge at the club house) My boy’s father lives in the house with us, but he’s usually absent from the game. Since my husband is not a good father or husband, rugby is a great place for my son to learn some of those lessons of boyhood that lead to manhood. Hopefully he won’t see it just as a game that his mum plays!

47 Paul August 19, 2013 at 12:27 am

Great lessons.
I grew up without a dad and struggled to find the tools to be a confident father.
I’m glad to say that I got there in the end through hard work and perseverance.
I played rugby at school and agree that those lessons are great lessons for life.
Im going to pin them to my wall. Cheers Mate.
Paul NZ

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