By Jonathan Schroeder
For four and a half years, Ali Smith lived what some people might call a double life. By day, Smith was a smiling, gentle-mannered nursing student in one of the most demanding academic programs at BYU. Few would have guessed that by nightfall, Smith’s smiling face would be covered in the blood, sweat, and tears of one of BYU’s most aggressive contact sports.
Smith has been a member of the BYU Women’s Rugby team ever since her very first semester at BYU; a journey that transformed her from an inexperienced benchwarmer to veteran starter in a National Title game. Now a capstone student in the nursing program, Smith has had to take a step away from the rugby pitch to focus on her clinicals. However, she says that the lessons she learned from rugby have helped her become a better nurse.
Smith first joined the BYU Women’s Rugby team as a freshman — long before she submitted her application to the nursing program. Although she had never played rugby before, Smith quickly fell in love with the sport.
“Rugby is a very physical game, but it’s also a very mental game. There are days in practice where you can get really beat up and you’ll ask yourself “Why am I doing this?” You just got beat up for two hours and now you have to go home and do homework for the next three hours! But I really wanted to become better and be the best; whether it was perfecting my pass or perfecting my tackling form. And it was totally worth it!”
Starting in late September and going through the month of May, the BYU Women’s Rugby team practices for 2+ hours every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. This is in addition to strength and conditioning sessions (every Tuesday and Thursday) and games on Saturdays. Despite this huge time commitment, Smith says it wasn’t uncommon for her to stay late after practice to work on passing or kicking with her teammates.
“I love the team dynamic of rugby,” Smith shares. “It’s such a neat experience when you’re able to get into a groove with the people you’re playing with; making good passes and making plays happen. You just get the sense that you’re part of something that’s bigger than you.”
After several semesters on the rugby team, Smith decided to expand her horizons even further. She applied, and was accepted, to the BYU College of Nursing. Suddenly Smith’s already busy schedule became much more demanding.
“It never felt like I was ‘done’,” Smith explains. “I was constantly doing something. If I wasn’t studying for a test, I was thinking about a play I could use on the field. If I wasn’t in class or doing homework, I was on a run or on the pitch.”
But having a crazy schedule did have its benefits. Between strength training, midterms, practices, and clinicals, Smith says she developed excellent time management skills.
“When I was in class, I was focused on that class. When I was in rugby, I was focused on playing rugby. I didn’t have extra time in my day to practice rugby or give to my classes, so I needed to make every moment count. Most days I didn’t have 5 hours to study for a test; I only had 2-3 hours before I had to go to practice. But for me, that extra focus was a huge blessing because it helped me get everything done and be more productive. It helped me develop self-discipline; I couldn’t just put off my homework till later because I knew I wouldn’t have that time.”
Once Smith entered the nursing program, she noticed that many of the principles she learned on the rugby pitch could also help her on the hospital floor.
“On the rugby team, I learned to be very encouraging and complimentary towards my teammates; especially when they performed well. They need to know that I’m there for them.”
“Sometimes you are in a game where the player who plays your position on the opposing team is really, really good, and you’re just having an off day,” Smith explains. “But because you have a team, they can help make up for what you’re lacking. I’ve seen that a lot in the hospital. There have been days where things have gotten really crazy and you think “There’s no way I can get to both of these patients at the same time” and just then another nurse will offer to help get meds for your patient. That really makes a huge difference. When you’re on a team, sometimes you can only do so much, but because you have that team dynamic things can still run as smoothly and efficiently as possible.”
This team dynamic is part of what makes the BYU Women’s Rugby team one of the top programs in the nation. The team has only lost three home games in ten years of collegiate competition. Last May, they won a tough semi-final match to earn a place in the National Championship Title game against the 10-time defending champions.
“I felt a lot of pressure walking onto the pitch of that national championship game,” Smith reflects. “I never thought that I would get there or be that good. But our team performed really well. And even though we didn’t win the match, it was still a whirlwind of an experience. To play in that game and represent BYU in that national title game was such an honor.”
Even though Smith may not have another chance to represent BYU on the rugby pitch, she says she’s extremely grateful for the experience and how it’s impacted her future nursing career.
“In a hospital, sometimes people are in critical condition counting under you to perform in really stressful, high-pressure situations. So just like how in rugby you train so we can play in those high-level games; in nursing we learn and gain skills and become good at what we do so that in that moment when someone needs you, you’re ready for it and you’re able to perform under pressure. I think that having experienced that on the rugby pitch, I’m better prepared to handle whatever stressful situation I may encounter as a nurse.”