Alena Abbott admits her acceptance onto the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme came as something of a surprise.
Abbott had been convinced to apply by two board members at the Deutscher Rugby Verband (DRV), for whom she works as a Youth Officer.
Due to her relative inexperience in that role, which she started in 2021, and the illustrious alumni of the programme to date, though, she did not expect her application to be successful.
It was with a certain amount of astonishment that she greeted the announcement in March that she would indeed become one of 12 new participants on the programme in 2022.
“I didn’t expect anything,” Abbott admitted to World Rugby.
“It took me by surprise, positive surprise and I was thrilled. Also, I had this feeling like, okay, I'm still young and still developing.
“I'm still at the beginning of my career and I'm surprised that World Rugby actually wants to invest in me [but] I really appreciate that.”
Introduction to rugby
Sport has been a huge part of Abbott’s life. She was only 10 years old when she first started kickboxing and would go on to compete at the German national championships.
It was while involved with kickboxing that she took her first steps in coaching, and she would go on to study sports science at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.
However, it was not until she was 22 that she came into contact with an oval ball. While completing a course to earn a general licence to teach sport to school-age children, she met someone who played the game.
“His eyes were glowing when he talked about rugby,” Abbott recalled.
Intrigued, she took a one-day introductory course in coaching a non-contact form of the game. “It was so much fun getting to know the sport.”
Abbott’s love affair with rugby truly blossomed at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, where she volunteered as a National Olympic Committee assistant with the Deutscher Olympischer Sportbund.
Working in the athletes’ village was “very, very special”, she says, but it was a trip to the Deodoro Stadium to watch the sevens tournament that really caught her attention.
“I bought a ticket for rugby and watched the women, and I thought, Wow, this is really interesting,” Abbott explained.
“Then I went to the men's final, and I said, ‘This is really fun to watch. I really want to try it’.
“And that's how I got involved with rugby and I just started playing, and then like half a year or a year later, something like that, I started coaching.”
Finding a “special” community
Following her trip to Brazil, Abbott began playing sevens at her local club in Karlsruhe and was soon coaching the U10 team as well.
She continued to play and coach in her hometown until last year, when she moved to Heidelberg to accept the Youth Officer job at the DRV.
Abbott now manages the U16, U18 and U20 national teams and handles all the associated paperwork and administrative duties.
“I really enjoy it because it's so different and there's always something new to learn, new to do, and it never gets boring,” she said.
Although, by her own admission, Abbott is not as good a rugby player as she was a kickboxer, she has found something else in the game.
“I really like the sport,” she added. “The community around it is so special. I've never, ever experienced something like that in sports, even though I studied sports science. For me, that’s totally unique.”
Although she has coached since a young age, Abbott says that she had never “actively” thought about becoming a leader prior to applying for the programme.
However, her previous experience has given a good grounding in that respect. “Being a coach, you always lead because you have a group and you do have goals,” Abbott explained.
“You're leading a group, even if it's kids or youth or whatever age… you’re in front of the group and anything you do, they may adopt.”
Looking to the future, Abbott wants to use her time on the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme to help raise awareness of rugby in Germany while providing a pathway for young women who want to take the step from the junior to senior game.
She says there are “a lot of steps ahead of us” but believes that getting women’s rugby on TV in Germany would help her achieve those goals.
“I don't know how realistic that is,” Abbott admitted. “But especially the little ones involved with rugby, they don't have any heroes in rugby in Germany because you don't see it on TV… or on social media.”
Abbott is re-learning French as part of the programme as she attempts to strengthen ties between the game in Germany and France and Switzerland.
But that is not where her learning will stop during her time on the programme as she wants to give herself the tools to capitalise on the potential she believes is contained within the women’s game in Germany.
“I feel like I’m at the beginning of my pathway,” she said. “But I definitely want to develop and continue learning and also reflecting on myself and my role and just get to know who I am as a leader and who I want to be.
“That's on a personal level. In general, I do want to develop rugby and especially female rugby, because there's so much potential in it.”