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Rugby coach hails the power of education on International Women’s Day

The rugby coach who led the Army's women's team to victory over the Navy at Twickenham last year has shared her insights as an Army educator and mentor.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, the theme of which is ‘Embrace Equity’, Major Gemma Stonebridge-Smith MBE, opens a window into the world of Army education and explains how the organisation strives to improve the opportunities available to all its personnel.

I played England Students rugby when I was at university and have been fortunate to also play for the Army and UK Armed Forces teams, including against international opposition as well as for my Corps and various civilian clubs over the years. Major Gemma Stonebridge-Smith MBE

An avid rugby player most of her adult life Gemma is now one of approximately 80 females in England that holds the level 3 Advanced Rugby coaching qualification and has recently qualified as a Coach developer responsible for supporting the development of other rugby coaches.

Awarded an MBE in the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours for her work within the Army inspectorate in areas such as mitigating heat illness, she has recently taken over as the Director of Rugby Development within the Army rugby union.

Gemma (38) said: “I played England Students rugby when I was at university and have been fortunate to also play for the Army and UK Armed Forces teams, including against international opposition as well as for my Corps and various civilian clubs over the years.”

She commissioned into the Adjutant General’s Corps (Educational and Training Services) in 2009. In 2015, she deployed to Afghanistan where she mentored the first Female Platoon to pass out from the Afghan National Army Officer Academy (ANAOA).

She said: “In the Army I think the biggest limiter on people achieving their goals is often the people themselves. The Army constantly strives to improve and offer development opportunities to our people.”

A growth mindset is crucial. Those with a fixed mindset tend to avoid pushing themselves outside their comfort zone in case they fail, rather than embracing failure as an opportunity for learning. MAJOR GEMMA STONEBRIDGE-SMITH MBE

“I used to see so many people come through the Army Education Centre’s doors for their course, and you could see when they arrived that they were dreading the thought of it, probably due to having some previous poor experience at school. Then, by the end, they wished they had come sooner as they found they were better than they thought they were going to be or really enjoyed the course. 

“A growth mindset is crucial. Those with a fixed mindset tend to avoid pushing themselves outside their comfort zone in case they fail, rather than embracing failure as an opportunity for learning.”

Currently the Chief of Staff at the Army’s West Midlands Headquarters in Venning Barracks, Telford, Gemma said joining the Army was something she had always wanted to do. 

“I didn’t know as a youngster which part or even that I wanted to be an officer but definitely always the Army – I remember distinctly running around in Army fatigues as young as seven or eight,” said Gemma.

Her mother and father both served in the military before she was born. Her father served in the RAF while her mother was a naval reservist. Her elder brother joined the Navy when he was 18 and Gemma became an Army Cadet at 13 and has worn a uniform ever since.

The Army provides so much opportunity for people to develop and grow. Be that through the mandated training and education or all the elective opportunities that are available free. MAJOR GEMMA STONEBRIDGE-SMITH MBE

Gemma continued: “The Army provides so much opportunity for people to develop and grow. Be that through the mandated training and education or all the elective opportunities that are available free,” said Gemma.

“I think if you are willing to work hard, have the right attitude and are willing to occasionally give a little push on doors that seem to be closed you usually find they are open. 

“An opportunity is only an opportunity if you are willing to take it.  I am a firm believer in that everything happens for a reason and so long as you control what is in your gift to control, then there is no point stressing about the stuff you can’t.”

“I think we have so much available now for people to develop themselves. Obviously, there are required standards that must be met to perform operational roles but, in other areas, the organisation is so much better at supporting people with learning differences and removing unnecessary barriers but of course there is still more that we can all do.”

She believes it is important to embrace people’s differences: “In my experience people with specific learning differences such as dyslexia, or other neurological diversity, have often developed incredible and varied problem-solving capabilities which mean they look at things in a different way.” 

I have been fortunate that I have had some incredible people to learn from - people who have taken a chance on me or guided, supported and encouraged me along the way. They have helped me learn how to pick yourself up when you fall. MAJOR GEMMA STONEBRIDGE-SMITH MBE

“Those differences are a real strength and can add to diversity in thinking within teams. But only when we remove unnecessary barriers that allow people to bring their full self to the team. 

“The challenge is understanding what those unnecessary barriers are for your people and making reasonable allowance or adjustments which, outside of the critical operational stuff, can usually be achieved with a bit of imagination.”

Gemma believes it is important for people to craft their own path. Personally, she doesn’t have one role model but instead takes the best parts from lots of different people which has allowed her to develop and to become the person she wants to be without losing her authenticity.

She said: “We are all unique, so we need to craft our own path and hope that we avoid the mistakes of others and learn from our own (mistakes). Every soldier can change the course of their future through education. It is a transformative power which can make significant and lasting positive changes in your life.

“I have been fortunate that I have had some incredible people to learn from - people who have taken a chance on me or guided, supported and encouraged me along the way. They have helped me learn how to pick yourself up when you fall.”

Gemma married Amy in 2010 who she describes as her rock, biggest cheer leader and biggest critic.

“She is a fabulous mum to our kids. She has been there every step of the way, dropping everything at a minute’s notice and packing up our lives to move wherever the Army send us – I couldn’t do it without her.”

Asked what advice she would offer young women preparing to leave school and facing the world of work, she said: “Believe in yourself, you are more capable than you can possibly imagine. Yes, there will be bumps and challenges on the way but those are the things that you learn most from. So embrace all life has to throw at you and never take yourself too seriously.”