Trinidad & Tobago

Schezelle Fleming, 35-year-old Spanish Teacher and coach of the SEPOS Ruggers, is on a mission and shows no sign of slowing down.

As one of the most recent graduates (with Honors) of the International Coaching Enrichment Certificate Program (ICECP), Schezelle is using her experience to help develop rugby in Trinidad, particularly as it relates to youth development and player retention, with a special focus on young girls from ‘at risk’ areas.

Fleming says she intends for her research project, that was part of the ICECP run by United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) in collaboration with the University of Delaware and Olympic Solidarity, to become part of Trinidad and Tobago Rugby Union’s (TTRU) development plan for rugby in her country, and for the region at large, to help make rugby accessible to all.

A Long Journey

Schezelle’s ICECP journey started in October 2020, when she was nominated by the Trinidad & Tobago Olympic Committee to participate in the prestigious coaching development opportunity, alongside coaches from 17 different sports and a variety of nationalities.

The program began with online learning modules on the essentials of coaching, which was due for completion early in 2021. However, Schezelle says the COVID-19 pandemic threw a ‘spanner in the works’.

“Because of COVID, we could not finish up our online modules then fly straight out to the USA for the in-person training component as originally planned,” she says. “We continued to learn online until things started to open back up and we were given the go ahead to travel again.”

In September 2022, almost a full two years since Schezelle began the program, she was finally able to travel to the USA to spend three weeks in Colorado, Chula Vista, and Delaware to train under the guidance of senior coaching experts, and to build on her theoretical knowledge acquired during lockdown.

“The first week we went to the USOPC Athletic Center in Colorado Springs and attended in-person practical classes to apply our online learning modules to real life situations,” she says. “They then split us up into different sports. For rugby, there were three coaches including myself and they sent us to another USOPC Athlete’s Center in Chula Vista to spend time with the USA Rugby Under 23 Program Coordinators. In the final week, we went to the University of Delaware where we met our tutors and finalized our research proposals with group collaboration and feedback. Once our proposal was approved, we were given six months to go ahead and begin implementation.”

The Hard Work Begins

After getting the green light on her proposal, Schezelle returned to Trinidad to undertake her research project, entitled ‘Increasing Participation and Competition for Girls Rugby in Trinidad and Tobago’.

“I set out to use rugby as a tool to develop fundamental movement skills (FMS) in girls aged between 6-12 years,” she says. “I obviously wanted to use the same opportunity to introduce rugby as a sport to these girls as early as possible, with the intention to also improve our player retention rates in Trinidad. I had learned so much about long-term athlete development during the program – about physical literacy, about the different windows in a child’s life when they are more susceptible to improving certain fundamental movement skills, that I decided that by introducing the FMS alongside rugby as a sports option, we could start to try to change both the stigma surrounding rugby as well as our involvement rate, particularly with girls.”

Schezelle’s project focused on two local all-girls primary schools located in what she deemed as ‘at-risk areas’, defined by high rates of crime and poverty. She says both school principals were so excited by the results of the program, that they asked if they could officially implement it as part of their curriculum.

“For me, that showed that what I am doing is working. I am a teacher in the area, so I chose those schools because I know there are a lot of good athletes there that get overlooked, or do not have the avenues available to reach their full potential,” she says. “Not many people are willing to go into these areas and do any sports-related work with the kids, and if they do, it is very superficial as these kinds of programs needs to be ongoing. And the girls still get overlooked terribly. The purpose was really to give every girl an equal opportunity to develop and excel, regardless of where they may live and what their socioeconomic status in society may be.”

As part of her project, Fleming also developed a coaching guide so that moving forward her development program can be implemented anywhere.

“I created an 8-week program guide for anybody who is willing to introduce rugby into their school or community. The program focuses on teaching fundamental movement skills, but then transitions into how these translate to basic rugby skills,” she says. “I need this project to stand alone, and for that to happen there needs to be tools in place, which is why I devised the guide to complement my individual efforts.”

In April this year, Schezelle was able to present her research and subsequent findings online to a jury of three tutors and complete the program, securing an Honors distinction.

“I then went to Switzerland and graduated with the entire class, which was just a surreal experience in itself.”

The Next Steps

“This is not an overnight project. It’s really about improving accessibility and long-term retention,” says Schezelle. “I am hoping to target 20 local all-girls primary schools over the next five years. If we can get that done, we would have done a fantastic job and the general level of involvement in rugby in Trinidad will just keep increasing from there.”

However, Schezelle says the immediate next steps are to change the length of her program from 8 to 12 weeks.

“I am proposing that this slightly longer and revised program is used as part of a broader national development program; it could be a great tool for youth development officers,” she says. “My vision is to see the program rolled out to as many young people as possible, particularly girls, and to make rugby more mainstream. I want to create a really positive environment to introduce the sport, so that in the next three to five years our Under 18 program will be filled with girls from all over the country.”

Fleming says she is also hoping to receive continued funding in order for the program to realize its full potential.

“I did receive some funding for equipment, which is a good start,” she says. “Once people see the value of programs like this, I am optimistic that more funding will come.”

And, for Schezelle, continuing her program is something that remains close to her heart, and she has no intention of giving up.

“I see kids from at-risk areas every day, particularly girls, who are overlooked and who are almost assumed to fail,” she says. “I have seen first-hand how a program like mine can change lives and I know that rugby has such a positive impact on anyone who gets involved. Many of the children I have coached or guided are now training on different national teams, many have travelled overseas for the first time, and are completely changing the direction of their lives. Rugby has been the tool that has shown them that there is more to life than what they thought they knew. I chose this research project very purposefully; I want to make rugby accessible to as many girls as possible and to show people that rugby is not just for the elite and it’s not just for men or boys. Rugby is for the people who are willing, and I intend to continue giving our children the choice to be involved in this wonderful sport and to become part of the rugby family as best I can.”