As part of goodmarks* – the initiative we created to make our business a force for good – each mark-maker* is encouraged to give back to our community by volunteering for one day each year. Co-founder, Ali Williams, has gone a bit further than that. And here, he tells us how much giving your time can give back to you.
21 competing teams from across the country, seven matches over two days, and somehow, with seconds to go, the unlikely-lads in the black and red stripes (sorry, Chipping where?) are on top.
The final whistle goes.
Chipping Norton Under 13s are the 2023 Tigers Challenge Cup Champions.
The boys’ on-pitch celebration is momentary and typically humble, before they race en masse to the medical tent. Two minutes before, one of their number had been stretchered from the pitch with an as–yet–undiagnosed broken ankle. The win mattered, but their fallen teammate mattered more.
For any coaches yet to succumb to watery eyes, that moment broke the dam.
It was a collective act of support and teamspirit that demonstrated just what an extraordinary group of young men these players had become. To see the boys gathered around Zander, who was clearly in pain behind the smile, revelling in their extraordinary achievement, was truly special.
This emotional scene was eight years in the making. Back then, Joe, my youngest, was keen to give rugby a go, and we chose Chipping Norton RFC Minis as the place to start.
From the very first session, on a damp and cold Sunday in September, I could see how being on the pitch ‘coaching’ might be considerably more enjoyable than standing on the freezing touchline watching. I wasn’t the only one. For those of us who put our hands up that day, volunteering became a weekly commitment. And none of us had any idea where it would take us.
The journey from then to now is a bit of a blur. Long gone are the frosty mornings corralling tiny tots prone to distraction.
(Me: ‘John, why have you stopped running? The try line’s there!’.
John, looking up, pointing, the ball at his feet: ‘There’s a really big bird in that tree!’.)
These days, the boys are recognised for their fast-paced, flowing style, and greater reliance on skill than size (even if the majority are significantly taller than me. Yes. I know. Not difficult.)
How we got here, it’s hard to say. I can’t give anyone a precise recipe. But I hope it has something to do with the spirit we’ve built together and the fact that every player is valued, and every contribution appreciated.
Much is said about the holistic benefits of team sport, and particularly of rugby – a game that requires and celebrates different physical and mental attributes, whilst fostering values of respect, discipline and teamwork.
It’s been a privilege to witness players develop in confidence and ability in their own time; to find their unique strengths and overcome personal fears.
For some, it’s a sport that comes naturally. Blessed with some combination of speed, strength, agility, a game-brain – and in some cases all of the above.
For those less innately gifted, identifying ways to untap potential and build confidence, and ultimately make them want to stay part of the team, has become a mini-mission in itself. As a group of coaches, we all agree that getting that right is one of the most rewarding elements of the job.
And no matter the skills they arrive with, my greatest satisfaction has come from watching each and every player realise that it’s teams that win games, not individuals.
I’ve learnt and been reminded of a few things along the way, too. To be more patient. To embrace and celebrate our differences. That the most important thing is for the players to know that we’re there for them. That winning is great – but being in a position to foster their love of sport and help nurture the camaraderie and positivity that come with that is the best thing by far.
So, I’ve grown a bit too. Perhaps not the extra half-metre the boys have, but in my own way, I’ve shot up.
I meant to pen this piece about a year ago. I just never got round to it. At that point we’d finished a second consecutive season unbeaten and twice been crowned Land Rover Cup Champions. It felt like the right time to celebrate and I thought I’d missed the boat.
I’d not expected another year to go by and for us to still be undefeated. And yet, here we are. And, actually, this feels like an even better point to pause, reflect and look forward.
Club junior sides typically experience an exodus of players at the point of moving from U13s to U14s. We’re feeling the effect of that now, and a significantly depleted squad will almost certainly mean an end to this winning streak. But the boys’ reaction to this has been philosophical beyond their years.
As one player I happen to know particularly well said to me after the first practice of the new season:
‘Dad, we may start to lose a few games now, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. You can’t learn much from winning all the time, and now, when we do win, it will be much more satisfying’.
A lesson there, as true to life as it is to rugby. And another example of what an extraordinary bunch Chipping Norton U14s are.
Whatever lies ahead, these boys are ready.