Erin Kennedy : changing the world with rugby

Thanks to her participation in the IOC’s Young Leaders Programme, American-born Erin Kennedy launched her project, Girls Rugby – which teaches young girls rugby and leadership skills – in her homeland. The programme is now available in multiple locations around the USA. Here, we meet an executive whose dream of a better world just won’t stop growing.

Erin Kennedy
Can you introduce yourself and tell us what got you into sport?

My name is Erin Kennedy and I am the Chief Operating Officer (COO) and Co-Founder of Girls Rugby. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania where sport was a very natural thing for kids to do. I had an older brother who played sports, and it seemed very natural for me to get involved as well. I wanted to play all different types of sports, and my parents allowed me to do that. I think I started at around five or six years old and I immediately loved it. It became a part of who I was and what I wanted to do.

How did you get into rugby?

Actually, I joined rugby quite late compared to many others. I didn't join rugby until I was 24 years old. When I was younger, I grew up playing many other sports, but rugby was not available in my town and the schools I attended. I started working for USA Rugby after I finished graduate school. Once I started working at USA Rugby, I figured it was natural for me to get involved and start playing the game. It was really different for me compared to other sports that I played growing up. There is a culture to rugby that is so different from other sports. It's one of those things where, if you get away from it, it keeps pulling you back. The connections and the network that you make… you're truly part of this global family, you're part of something bigger. Even though I joined rugby later in life, the passion was there. It's something very special that keeps you involved.

Can you tell us about the values in the Girls Rugby programme?

In our Girls Rugby programme, we run a values- and leadership-based curriculum, which means we're very deliberate about the values that we put into our programme. We want to make sure these girls leave with a lot of core values and life skills, in addition to the rugby skills that they're learning. An example of this is when one of our players stood up for another student in school. It was all because she learned about respect in rugby practice. She was able to see that this other student was not respected, and she decided to go stand up for them, and show them respect. It's incredibly powerful to be so young and be able to apply that concept to other aspects of life. That's exactly what we want to do in our programme.

Erin Kennedy IOC - Young Leaders
What has sport given you?

I think sport has given me a lot when I look back on it. As an adult I’m incredibly competitive, I’m incredibly driven, and my ability to work with teams, problem solve, and deal with challenges as they come up are all things I learned through sport. Sports were able to provide me with a good foundation of skills and values that I now use as an adult. I know that there are studies out there that show that sports can give you so many different things, and I think I’m experiencing that for sure. The reason why I’m successful and the way that I am is truly from the foundation I built through sports.

What does the Young Leaders Programme mean for you, and what did it do for you?

I worked for the International Olympic Committee back in 2015 and 2016, and actually contributed to the first version of the Young Leaders Programme. When I finished my contract with the IOC and returned to the USA, I wanted to do a project with rugby specifically for girls. The IOC and the Young Leaders Programme was a good platform to get involved because it was able to bring that idea to life. I was able to take something that I wanted to create and make it a reality with the resources and support from the programme. I don’t know if I would have done the project without the support of the programme.

What did you learn?

I think I mostly learned a lot about myself throughout this process. I’m not sure that I knew this project could be what it is today when I first got started. What I learned is that all I really needed was this catalyst to get started and make something happen. From there, I was able to turn this into what Girls Rugby is today: a non-profit organisation dedicated to empowering girls through sport. The IOC Young Leaders Programme helped me realise that I could do something bigger.

Erin Kennedy IOC - Young Leaders
Tell us about the young leaders’ activities and what they achieve.

I’m no longer involved in the IOC Young Leaders Programme, as it is now open to Young Leaders under 30, and I’ve aged out. But I am staying involved with some other small projects. This year I assisted Panasonic with a virtual talk with their Team Panasonic athletes, as part of the CES 2021 event. I hope to be more involved in things like this, or assisting with the IOC Young Leaders Programme in the future.

What is the story and the objective behind the project?

My project is Girls Rugby – a non-profit organisation in the US. Our mission is to empower girls to reach their potential through sport, and we use flag rugby mixed with core values and leadership skills to do that. We chose this mission because girls do not have the same opportunities to be active in sports when compared with boys. And particularly in rugby, girls were not getting involved at younger ages. We wanted to create an environment where the girls would feel really comfortable coming into a sport like rugby. We wanted to be very deliberate about what they were learning in those programmes. We created Girls Rugby to be that environment. As far as I know, we’re the only organisation that runs girls-only flag rugby programming for ages 7-14 in the US. Our goal is to provide more opportunities for girls to be active, and to make sure that when they are active in our programmes, they’re learning positive life skills that will help them be successful on and off the field.

What do you think has been the biggest impact on your community, and can you give some examples? What are you most proud of?

The biggest impact that our programme has had is that we are redefining what rugby for girls means. With everything that we do, from our branding to how we run our programmes, we’re growing rugby in a way that is different from what the non-rugby community has ever seen. Girls and their families are now seeing other girls who look like them playing this game. We’re normalising what it’s like to be a girl and a rugby player. I’m excited about that because now, when a parent goes and searches rugby for their daughter, they’re going to see images and videos from our programme. It’s going to help grow the sport and get more girls involved, which is exactly what we want to do. I think I’m most proud that we were able to have as big of an impact as we’ve had, in just a few short years. We’re now looking forward to the future to continue that progress.

Erin Kennedy IOC - Young Leaders
What do you think about Panasonic’s support for the Young Leaders Programme, and how have they made a difference?

I love that Panasonic is supportive of the programme. Young people have ideas on how they want to change the world. To have a programme like this shows how important the future is to Panasonic and how much they want to invest in that. It’s massive that Panasonic would support something like that. Giving young people a programme where they can take their ideas and turn them into reality… I think it’s amazing. We’re going to start seeing the impact in the years to come.

What are your hopes and dreams for the future?

I keep seeing our programming grow, and I want more people to get involved, whether it’s putting their kids into the programme, volunteering with us, or donating to help contribute to our programmes. We want to continue our growth and expansion. The more programmes we can run, the bigger an impact we can make. My hope is that Girls Rugby will keep growing in all communities, in the US and internationally. At the end of the day, I hope that at least one girl who joins a Girls Rugby programme is able to change her life because of what she is learning and taking from that. If anyone is interested in contributing to or getting involved in Girls Rugby, they can visit our website at www.girlsrugbyinc.com.

What do you think our future world needs?

I think our future world needs empathy. We are currently going through tough times, and we’re at the point where everyone is having unique experiences and understanding who they are as an individual. I believe our world would be a lot better if we had empathy for our neighbour. We need to be more open to everything: to experience, to people, to our differences and to new challenges. If things stay constant then they never change, and we never grow.

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