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GET STRONGER with Mackenzie Carson

Abbotsford BC’s own Mackenzie Carson, 21, is a Canadian international 15s player who moved to the UK in 2018 to pursue playing rugby with first Bristol and then Saracens, after spending time as fly-half for UBC in Canada. Mackenzie has played since she was 9 and plays in the back row as well as putting in time in the front row. She played all of her age grade rugby in British Columbia and was quickly picked by Rugby Canada at the age of 17 to enter their player pathway. Carson played on both the Canada U18 and U20 teams, with her debut cap for the senior team being against England during the Autumn Internationals in 2018. Mackenzie hopes to make the 2021 World Cup Squad.

In your opinion, what is the most important fitness exercise for a rugby player?

MR: I am fairly new to rugby-specific training as when I was still in school I just played other sports as cross training! I never really knew how important it was to strength train in order to be successful in the sport of rugby. For me, over the past two years my strength-based exercises have been huge. Being a front row, it is really important to be impactful at set pieces as well as at the point of contact. I think interval training is massive in rugby. Whether it is on the bike, feet, or a circuit-type of workout, it’s important to be able to do repeated work in rugby while still making impacts on the physical aspects of the game.

What are some of your personal fitness goals?

MR: I recently had ankle surgery so I am using it as a great opportunity to make some gains on my upper-body. In addition to rehabbing my ankle, I’m also strengthening up some lower body areas that I didn’t have a chance to work on before.

How do you have to modify your training/preparation in order to play hooker vs. back row?

MR: In terms of my gym training it’s relatively the same. Nowadays, playing hooker is like a 4th back row, so being strong and physical like a front row is crucial but you also need to be able to get around the park and make impacts in every area of the game like a back row is expected. I think my style of play actually fits that description perfectly as I tend to be a strong ball carrier but I also love being on defence. In terms of skill-specific, mentally at scrum time, you have to be ready to win a 1 on 1 battle in the front row as you set the platform for the rest of the pack. It’s important to be switched on and dominant. Also, when it comes to throwing at line out time, it’s a really crucial skill that has to be executed well during fatigue. This is a big shift for myself. When I’m playing in the back row I am more focused on tackle completion and work rate. In all honesty though, my mindset doesn’t change massively when I play both positions. As I said before, I like to play somewhere in between a typical front row and your standard back rower. My goals are always to have a high tackle count (as many dominate as possible), to carry hard and win all the little battles.

About 2 years ago you moved from Abbotsford, Canada to the UK to play rugby in the Tyrrell’s Premiership. What was the adjustment period like for you?

MR: I was at UBC for two years and I decided it was time for a new challenge so I signed with the Bristol Bears and moved to the UK. It was a big adjustment in terms of being so far from home and away from most of my family, but it was the exact push I needed. I then signed for the Saracens in London this past summer which has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It’s such a professional environment and the girls have pushed me in every aspect. To crack the starting 15 and game day 22 is super competitive and the expectations are set extremely high, which has given me a great opportunity to test my skill set and my mental toughness. It’s been hard at times adjusting to playing at such a high level of rugby, but having aspirations to play international rugby and hopefully going to a world cup means that it is so important for me to play as much rugby as possible and push myself to get better. My mum was born in England, so having dual citizenship made it really easy to find work and make the move abroad. I have absolutely loved being in the UK and getting to experience a different culture and I’m glad I have such an amazing opportunity to play rugby and be surrounded by world class athletes and staff everyday.

How do you manage mental fitness compared to physical fitness?

MR: Mental fitness is something that isn’t talked about often, but is a really vital part about rugby. I think especially being in a such an elite environment, but still not being fully professional, on the women’s side of things it can take a toll on you mentally and physically.

For me, I’m either coaching, in university classes, or training constantly so it can be hard to balance everything and I often feel like I have no time to spare. It can be hard to get everything done in a week and still feel like I’m mentally on track. But being able to push yourself through difficult times and situations is critical to reaching the next level. Mental toughness is something you will hear often in any sport but particularly rugby. Being mentally fit also means knowing your limits and reaching out for help when you need it. In such a physical sport it can be easy to be closed off and isolate yourself, but part of having mental fitness is being able to recognize when you are not quite at your best and need help working through things. For me mental fitness has always been an area for improvement. Working through emotions can be tricky but I have found, especially the older I get, that it is much better in the long-run that I acknowledge what works for me to keep me focused and on track and also what doesn’t help me grow. But just like physical fitness, it’s something as athletes we are always working on, you never really stop working on it.

What is a piece of advice that you use to get you through low motivation days?

MR: I think the biggest piece of advice is to find a solid group of people that will hold you accountable, whether that be a coach, teammates, friends, or family. For myself, I love being around people and I am super competitive so being around others makes the hard days more enjoyable and pushes you to keep going. When you have people to make you laugh, but also give you that extra shove when you need it, it helps keep you on track. Anyone that knows me, knows I am the worst at being self-motivated so I lean on my mates a lot! At the same time, looking at short-term goals and long-term goals is what works best for me when I do have to look internally. Some days it’s just about ticking a box and putting minutes in the bank. You aren’t going to have an amazing day every day but staying focussed on the process and staying honest with yourself is key.

How often do you eat throughout the day? What foods make up your daily diet?

MR: I tend to stick to a regular three meals a day, but I am constantly snacking in between so it tends to work out to be more like 6-8 meals a day. I love eggs and breakfast is my favourite meal of the day so they are staples for me. I also love avocados and in the colder months I tend to lean towards oats as they fill me up, keep me warm, and give me energy for longer. At the moment I am loving taco salad for dinner but I also eat a lot of chicken and salmon. I’m a big veggie gal so as long as I’m getting lots of veggies in I’m happy!

What is your favourite cheat day meal?

MR: Anyone that knows me well knows I have a major sweet tooth! Not so much a cheat meal, but I have such a sweet tooth so sweets are my go-to. I absolutely love sour keys and galaxy chocolate so I love to treat myself to those (maybe more often than our nutritionist would like!).

Do you think there’s a difference in the way men vs. women have to train in the sport of rugby?

MR: I think there are a lot of aspects that are similar and a lot that are different. We tend to train the same in terms of the standard movements we do, but our accessory work can vary due to what we want to achieve and we tend to break the movements down a lot more than men. When it comes to the on-field aspects, women’s rugby is a totally different game. We tend to have more one-off runners, less kicking out of hand and more time with the ball in play. So in a lot of ways it’s like comparing apples and oranges! I think something that is understudied in women’s sport is also the hormonal and menstrual cycle as well. It plays a huge role in injuries, iron levels, motivation, and a lot more. I’m trying to educate myself on it more, but it’s an interesting topic to look at.

What is your personal favourite type of fitness?

MR: My favourite type of fitness would be anything strength-based. I think as a true front row we tend to avoid the running aspects of things! But when I do have to do it I love swimming and although it kills, the assault bike is my go-to when it comes to getting my heart rate up.

What do you like to do on your rest days?

MR: I’m taking online classes at the moment so I’m often doing work or revising, but when I do catch some free time I am usually in a coffee shop with a flat white, hanging with my mates, watching Netflix, or painting (although I’m not very good at it!).