Lessons Learned: How to channel fear through rugby

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rugby and words
Tomonari/The Occidental

I am a fairly fearful person. I’m afraid of heights, going to the dentist and getting my period while wearing white pants. There are a lot of things in this wide world to be afraid of, but my fears don’t control my life. I go to the dentist semi-regularly, and have lived to tell the tale. In recent years, I’ve gone a step further and pushed myself to embrace my fears. For my birthday last year, I walked the rim of the Grand Canyon and was enraptured by the vastness and serenity in the deep valleys that lay below me.

That being said, for a long time I felt paralyzed by fear to the point that I avoided its sources. From ages 7 to 9 I refused to go to the beach because I was afraid of seagulls, which was an unfortunate side effect of watching Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” with my older sister. In high school, I pretended to be sick more than once to get out of class presentations. I have a complicated relationship with fear because I know its value, but strongly dislike the creeping and often overpowering feeling of trepidation.

When I got to Oxy, I joined the womxn’s rugby team. For those unfamiliar with rugby, it is a contact team sport in which players tackle and ruck for the ball in order to score tries. For those unfamiliar with rucking and tries… it’s probably easier if you look it up. Rugby unleashed a lot of confidence and power within me. There is something exhilarating, animalistic and kind of crazy about playing a contact sport. There is also something terrifying about it.

There is a lot to be afraid of with rugby. Tackling was my biggest fear. In my first few games, I found myself getting cold feet, forcing my teammates to take on most of the tackles. I did not let this stop me. I continued to go to practice and games despite the creeping fears that followed me. As I gained more experience, I gained more confidence. Soon enough, I was tackling with the best of them. I think part of me blacked out before every game, because it’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that I ran directly at people, threw my arms around their bodies and tackled them to the ground.

Through a mix of carefully planned gameplay, instinct and miracle, I started to score tries. My fears were still there, but they were mostly expended through 80-minute games of blood, sweat and tears. I ran in the back line in the position of inside center, and soon grew to love the sport, my teammates and our opponents. Yes, opponents. Frequently after games we would have mixers and socialize with the teams we had just played. There is an almost instantaneous shared connection between people who choose to scrum, maul and grubber.

The womxn’s rugby team at Oxy was an exceptionally supportive space that empowered me to confront my fears. I have made lifelong friends through rugby, and have witnessed some of them meet major milestones. As a first-year I went to the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) 7’s Championship Tournament in Pittsburgh, and watched as a teammate felt snow for the first time ever. As a team, we went on a tour to Ireland, and for many, it was their first time leaving the country.

We also went through our fair share of challenges. Playing a high-contact sport means there will inevitably be injury, from broken bones to concussions to turf burns. Many wore their injuries like badges of honor, while for others, recovery was harder. Yet alongside each of these challenging moments was the support of the team. After tearing a ligament in my ankle during one game, I had to use a pair of crutches for several weeks, and my teammates took turns driving me up Norris Hill.

Through my experiences with rugby, I learned to channel my fear into power. Rugby turned fear into adrenaline and helped me rewire negative thought patterns into positive ones. When my heart rate started to skyrocket before a game, it increased the flow of oxygen to my muscles, and allowed me to play longer without getting tired. It made me feel powerful, capable and confident. I don’t play much rugby anymore, but I am connected to the sport through the person it has helped shape me to be. And when I run into someone who loves to ruck, maul and tackle, I know I’ve found a friend.

Aria Devlin, an Urban & Environmental Policy major with an Interdisciplinary Writing minor, graduated December 2021.