Lydia Thompson: “You don't need to define a sport by a gender”

Posted by for Strong Women

The Worcester winger is gearing up for the Six Nations Championship. Here, she talks to Strong Women about how rugby has helped her body and mind.

“I think it is funny when a guy offers to carry something for you and you are like ‘Well if you want to, but I’m capable’,”  says Lydia Thompson. Thompson is more than capable. A rugby player since the age of 11, she’s now, at 28, one of Britain’s best sportswomen. On her first match for England in 2012 she ran in three tries, and hasn’t slowed down since. 

As a member of the Six Nations 2020 squad, she spoke to Strong Women about being a female athlete. 

SW: Tell us about your training routine.

LT: I think I’ve realised that that I have such a passion to move. I really enjoy discovering what I can do and I feel like fitness and training is an outlet to help you grow. That’s is a big thing: finding the right fitness routine and training that you enjoy. Some people love running, some people love going to the gym, some people love yoga, so it’s not a one size fits all. 

For me, I like a variety. One minute I am in the gym and I am lifting and using heavyweights and the next minute I’m doing cardio, I’m going on runs, then I’m doing yoga to get into my body and also give back to it. I train pretty much every day in some form or another. But sometimes you just don’t feel great, and that’s okay, so it’s about being compassionate. 

I think that’s hard, especially for high-level athletes to realise that to be at my best I’m going to have to have a rest day. So I do a morning check-in with myself, which is really important to me. I’m at Worcester, my club, training on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays to do a weights session, then a skills session and then team training. I feel like my weak spot is cardio, so on the weekend I try to get on the bike or go for a run and then Sunday’s about recovery.

Lydia Thompson
England rugby winger Lydia Thompson

SW: It’s really nice and refreshing to hear that you have such a variety of workouts, so it’s not super rigid. How has weightlifting improved your personal performance?

LT: I love learning new ways of moving. I think Instagram is a great place to kind of get inspiration and find different ideas. I like looking at what the male athletes do in the gym or like tennis players or CrossFit athletes, and I might bring some of that into my program. I think variety is really important to keep it exciting and fresh, and it’s nice to have a challenge. I like to master something so I always try make sure my gym session has a skill that I’m working on. When I first came into the sport, I didn’t really lift weights, but I had to. For me lifting weights is about kind of giving myself that extra bit of edge on the pitch. I want to be strong and I want to feel capable and empowered and I want to be fast. Because I’m a winger I want to be able to lift the weights fast. So for me, I try and make sure my weight session is what I want to get out of it.

SW: Do you think that’s important to women’s overall health and fitness even if they’re not professional athletes?

LT: First of all, you’ve got to want to do it. It’s really nice to feel like you’ve got a body that is capable. I feel really empowered that I can do pretty much anything without feeling too weak. It’s quite nice to go “Oh, I’ll have a go”. 

The more women lift weights the more they’ll feel strong and capable and empowered in their bodies. The more they see the knock-on effect, that you can say yes to stuff or you’ve got a healthy body that’s ageing well. I think that’s really important for me, that I’ve got a body that I’m investing in, and most certainly as I get older. There’s loads of evidence that lifting weights and healthy living and wellbeing and training can help us as we get into older age. So I do think it is important for women to find a weight program, a strength program, that kind of facilitates what they want to get out of life.

SW: A lot of the times we hear that there’s a gender gap in the gym, there’s a lot of gender bias when it comes to health and fitness. Have you come across that?

LT: I actually feel really lucky because I’ve had so many men in my life who’ve been really encouraging. I go to a CrossFit gym and I think it’s an awesome environment because everyone in there has come in with their own reasons and motivation. They’re all here for different reasons. So you’ve got like a 50-year-old single mom absolutely blitzing it on the rower, next day, a 20-year-old university student. It’s just a great combination of people and energy and I feel like you can get those environments that support everyone to achieve whatever they want. I love the fact that I made so many friends from all backgrounds, all walks of life and it is very fun. We’ve got a lady deadlifting her bodyweight and really pushing herself just because she wants to. She wants to be the best version of her. So I feel like I’ve actually been really well supported by men and encouraged at my club at Worcester. The men’s players are really, really positive – they ask about my gym program!

SW: That’s amazing. What about your personal life?

LT: I think it is funny when a guy offers to carry something for you and you are like “Well if you want to but I’m capable.” I think it is funny when you are at the top of the CrossFit boards, that you scored the most and all the guys there are a little bit like “What’s she got on?”, but then they are very encouraging and they respect who I am. 

Lydia Thompson and team mates
Lydia Thompson and team mates

SW: Would you say that rugby has really helped to broaden the perception of women in sport?

LT: I think sometimes people want to put someone in a box. They think rugby is a boys sport, a man’s sport and actually, it’s showing that you don’t need to use boxes all the time. You don’t need to define a sport by a gender. 

I was a girl that loved climbing trees, loved being dirty, loved playing football. To see strong female role models play rugby, for example when I was watching the 2010 Rugby World Cup and saw all of these amazing women playing such a physical, powerful sport, I was like “Wow, I want to be one of them”. 

I feel rugby’s shown that if you’re a girl out there that does want to be a little bit rough, it’s okay. There’s no need to feel sorry for enjoying being strong.

SW: How would you say team sport has specifically improved your mental well being or helped build your confidence?

LT: I love it. I used to be an individual sportsperson. I did swimming, running and athletics and to come into something that was so supportive, that really wanted the best out of me, and have become friends for life has been incredible. 

It’s been a beautiful community to be a part of and I just love sharing that experience. It’s so nice that I’m not on that pitch by myself. I’m sharing it with so many amazing women and I think that’s encouraging. 

Sometimes we feel a bit low or you get really bored with training, but it’s really cool that when you walk out your best mates are waiting for you and they’re there to encourage you and support you. I feel like it’s got the best out of me in so many ways, on and off the pitch.

SW: I imagine it must be really fun. Do you ever hang out outside of practice?

LT: Yeah, absolutely. You’d think we’d be tired of each other since we spend so much time together but yeah, we do meet up and support each other. I’ve known a lot of these players for 10 plus years and we supported each other through life events outside of rugby and it’s amazing that I share a sport with these women. 

You share moments and memories and when the sport is done I’m hoping they’ll still always be in my life. Yeah, I feel very lucky to have found a community, a group of people through sport.

SW: One thing we’re constantly hearing from girls is that they’re afraid to lift weights because they’re afraid they’re going to become bulky. Have you ever had a moment where you struggled with your own body image or felt pressured to look a certain way?

LT: Yeah. When I was growing up, as a teenager, I felt really really self-conscious of my body image. I was a swimmer so I was quite broad-shouldered but I was really skinny. It was a weird obsession with being skinny but then when I went on the rugby pitch, I was so weak. I remember trying to tackle someone and just falling off the tackle and feeling really pathetic. 

I spoke to my dad about it and he was like, you’ve got to eat, you’ve got to feed yourself. It was such a good turning point for me because I realised that to be strong, to do rugby, to do something I loved, I needed to give my body food and needed to embrace having these muscles and I think it’s been fantastic. 

I love the fact that I’ve got a capable body, I’ve got a body that can do things for me and I really want to look after it now. I think going through that period and almost harming my body has made me really appreciate food, nutrition, lifting weights, looking after my body. I think it’s amazing when you see these strong, powerful women of all sorts of shapes and sizes. Your body is such an amazing tool, so respect that.

SW: I find that as you get older with every year you just become more focused on the future. Thinking about being healthy and fit for a very long time. You want to make yourself strong so that you can be there for your kids or do your job well.

LT: I agree totally. I think that’s a great way of saying it, I feel like I want a body for me not for anyone else right? It’s my body and it gives me options and I don’t need someone else to say it looks good because I’m really proud of it. I love the fact that I can be a good role model. If I do have children I want to be able to do things with them and join in with activities and be fit and be an inspiration. So yeah, I think it’s an awesome way of saying it the way you said did.

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