Rugby Bricks Podcast
Peter Breen, professional player, inventor and entrepreneur Interviews USA Eagle Flanker, prop, lock and 7's hero, Abby Gustaitis
Welcome to the podcast. It’s so good to see your face on screen.
Abby Gustaitis: Thanks so much for having me. Kudos for pronouncing my last name right, so starting off good.
Peter Breen: To be fair, I watched a few videos, because I saw it down and I was like, “I have to nail this.” So, you’re obviously are the U.S. I’m in Melbourne, Australia, and we are joined today by construction workers outside my window, so if you hear that coming through, that’s what it is. But that’s life.
Abby Gustaitis: Excellent. I’m joined by my rowdy neighbors that moved in and are still living it up quarantine style, so…
Peter Breen: I love it. The place that I want to start is your Instagram account. ATown1022. Can we visit A Town and what is it?
Abby Gustaitis: Sure. You cannot visit A Town and it definitely does not exist anymore, but I got the nickname in college or at university, and my name, Abby, obviously starts with an A, but I was always down to do anything, like whatever it was, so A Town Down was my nickname throughout college, and then it just sort of stuck. And what was the point in changing it? Everyone just has their first and last names as their handles. That gets a little boring, so we’ll have a little bit of a story behind it.
Peter Breen: Yeah. I love it. Hey, I’m big on storytelling ,so I love that. And just looking at your Instagram page, there’s a bit of effort that goes into your page. It’s a very clean and well thought out page. You’re doing well.
Abby Gustaitis: It’s wild how much social media comes into play these days and building your brand, and who knew how much stress could be behind it? I feel for the people how actually have a legitimate following.
Peter Breen: No, I think you’re doing a great job, because yeah, I was checking it out and sort of trying to do some research on you and find out a little bit more, and I think you’ve presented yourself really well, and the first probably question I wanted to start with was a little bit behind the endorsement and sponsorship, like have you got a few opportunities coming your way now that your face and image is out there?
Abby Gustaitis: Yeah. A little bit. I’m a little choosy when it comes with partnerships. I want to make sure I’m invested in the brand, so right now I just do a little bit with some small businesses. I’ve gotten to know the owners, and what their goals are, and similar to me, they’re trying to help me in my journey, and whatever can be a mutual collaboration, I’m not sort of gunning for anything big here, and just trying to get rugby more on the map, as well as myself.
Peter Breen: Yeah. Love it. What’s some examples of these small businesses?
Abby Gustaitis: Yeah, sure. So, Rickaroons is an energy bar that… They live right down the street from me and they’ve become some of my really great friends, and so they’re super cool, and just trying to make it in this huge world of every type of bar that exists. And then just some kombucha, and so we have two local companies here, Superfood & Company and TapShack.
Peter Breen: Love it.
Abby Gustaitis: And I’m obsessed with kombucha, and it’s not as big Down Under, but I saw it making its way over there.
Peter Breen: Yeah. It definitely is. There’s a brand here called Remedy that is going off. It’s everywhere. So yeah, it’s definitely having an impact. And just on that, with the small brands, I’m so aware of word of mouth, and I think when you get massive brands, the ones we can all think of, Adidas, Nike, you don’t get the same word of mouth effect from the brands that you’ve aligned yourself with. So, no matter how big or small they are, I think aligning yourself with people is really cool.
Basketball. I know that you played, and all my followers know how big I am on basketball. The picture’s on the wall behind me. Skills, vision, teammates, communication. What has it done for you and what’s your story and journey?
Abby Gustaitis: Honestly, it’s been a huge help crossing over to Rugby 7s. I think a lot of the skills translate really well. Obviously, transition ball, going from attack to D, a lot of other sports you’re really in that positional aspect of, “Oh, I’m a forward. Oh, I’m a guard.” I’m defense in soccer or whatever it is. But in basketball, you obviously do both, and just that mindset I think has helped me a lot in 7s, just being aware. Let alone the hand-eye coordination. I’m an aerialist and that’s a huge part of my game, and so I think that’s helped. I’m pretty tall, and so practicing basketball for 15 years, all the way… I didn’t end up going to college to play basketball, but got a little burnt out through high school, and then ended up switching over to rugby.
Peter Breen: Love it. And do you still pick up the basketball and keep those skills polished?
Abby Gustaitis: A little bit. I challenged Corbs to a few games but he’s pretty pathetic, so… Having grown up in England, it doesn’t make for much competition.
Peter Breen: Yeah. It’s funny when you play someone who’s just got no idea. I know what you mean. And growing up in the basketball world, who were some people that kind of inspired you and you looked up to?
Abby Gustaitis: Definitely Michael Jordan. But I went to the University of Maryland, and that was… It’s a huge college basketball environment, and I watched the women play there forever, and winning a national championship, and it’s just incredible. But I really admired Michael Jordan, and learning more about him throughout the years had sort of partially molded me into my captaining style, and then I’ve sort of like challenged myself with him, thinking he was an ideal leader growing up, and then really getting more insight into it, like, “Okay. Maybe he’s not the absolute perfect leader for a team.” But he obviously is the best if not one of the very best you obviously can argue, and it’s been interesting.
Peter Breen: I love it. And you… I’m 100% sure you would have watched the Last Dance, and we’re gonna come back to sort of that team and leadership soon, but I want to stay on the skill thing. A little birdie told me you guys were busy during COVID doing skills every day. 30 minutes was the time chucked out there, so that’s impressive to be doing 30 minutes of skills. A lot of people cap it at 10. So, I want to know all the details, what you did, how’d you do it, the drills, the skills, what’d you do?
Abby Gustaitis: Definitely. So, I’ll start with aerials, because that’s my bread and butter, and I’m all about improving your weaknesses, but if you don’t have an X factor, if there’s not something that you’re better at than most people, then you can really find yourself isolated on a rugby 7s pitch, so for aerials, if it’s just two of us I try to make it challenging, but start with straight, high ball catches, angles, add in that person chasing you to provide a little bit of competition. If you have Corbs chasing you he’s not moving too fast, but he’s a big body, so it’s good.
And then the chase, kickoff chase, so a big part of our game is getting that ball back, so mostly working on two-handed catches, but throwing in the tap, whether singlehanded and double handed. I never played volleyball, which is everyone’s surprise being six feet tall, but really trying to get that tap back I think is pretty critical, because a lot of times someone else is competing for that ball and you can’t get a clean catch, and trying to direct the tap back, so having my receiver move to different locations and trying to get that ball to them.
Peter Breen: I want you to explain the process. You guys get a kickoff. The kicker’s trying to put it in a certain area. What are you doing? How does that communication work and how are you sort of aligning yourself to make a play?
Abby Gustaitis: So, we have zones across the 10 meter. We have a number for each area. And then depending on who’s on the field, you have two designated aerialists, and like I would be the restart leader if I’m on the field, so I identify the space ,communicate it to the kicker by signaling a number on my hand, and then the number one thing for me is eyes on the ball. The moment I look at the person I’m competing against, or the space it’s going to the ground, you have 50/50 shot of catching that ball and I want my odds to be a lot higher, so I’m maintaining eye contact on the ball the whole time, and then I’m actually creating an angle and trying to get behind the ball to put myself in the best position.
And getting those J lines is really critical for me, because then any tap will go back to my team instead of a few rogue ones that have definitely happened.
Peter Breen: Yeah. Yeah. I kind of… I try to explain it like a layup in basketball. You kind of give yourself that nice little angle and then attack the ball and the angle really well. Are you identifying a short person to try to kick to? Or are you just backing yourself against anyone?
Abby Gustaitis: I will back myself against anyone, pod included, but ideally a space, so that’s what I’m looking at first. Especially teams know going against the U.S. that we’re gonna compete for the ball, so a lot of times they’ll pod, which creates bigger gaps for us to kick to. And then even if they have to shift to that, they’re already podded up, so it’s a little more of a challenge. So, kind of playing a little cat and mouse game with them, and that’s what I like to do when we’re receiving, as well. You give them the space like it’s open and then you shut it down real fast.
Peter Breen: Love it. I distracted you. Going back to the skill sand the passing stuff, how did you structure those sessions?
Abby Gustaitis: For sure. So, unfortunately here, parks were closed for three months straight.
Peter Breen: Wow.
Abby Gustaitis: So, we even… We live in a community and the grass outside the library was even shut off.
Peter Breen: Wow.
Abby Gustaitis: So, we’re going to play and then there’s a security officer like, “Sorry, guys. You gotta keep it moving.” Like, “Okay.” So, a lot of times we were just in the alleyway. We have a little parking spot. Or once the beaches opened up, we actually did a lot in the sand. And so, for the most part we would have another person, possibly, like I have another roommate who plays as well, and then once she got involved we could do live competition. But if it’s just two people, we’re just 8 to 10 meters apart, throwing up high balls, having the thrower or kicker come in to close the space to just provide that distraction.
Because you can sit there all day and catch high balls over your head with no one, no competition, or nothing hitting your arms, but as soon as you get onto that rugby field, there’s four people it seems in the air at once. So, and then we would start with tennis balls a lot of the time and work single eye, or single hands, coordination, and anything just to get that brain working and connecting body and mind I think is a huge help. And like I said, coming from basketball, those skills have translated, but… So, something simple you can do every single day.
Peter Breen: Yeah. I also think that it keeps the touch and it keeps the rhythm, like you definitely feel when you’re in form with anything and out of form, and I think that again, the crossover from basketball, when you’re working on your dribbling or your shot, you know when you’re on and you kind of know when you have to work harder, so it’s cool to hear that, yeah, you made the most of… I suppose we’re still in it, but COVID. Neurobiology. I want to learn some stuff. So, that’s what you got your degree in, and I guess I want you to kind of explain what it is and how you apply it to things like rugby and outside life.
Abby Gustaitis: Okay, so I majored in physiology and neurobiology with all intents and purposes of furthering my degree by going back to school. Medical school, specifically. And I’ve always been interested in medicine, the human body, and emergency medicine in sports, more or less. So, that’s kind of been my path that I created for myself from a young age, but I really just wanted to know how the human body worked, and as soon as I got to college I saw that that was an option, and I dove right in. I declared my major right when I got there and it’s really helped me in sports, because I know the little things and the firing of neurons in your brain, and building new pathways, and breaking habits to form new habits, and how it all works.
Peter Breen: How do you break a habit?
Abby Gustaitis: Nearly impossible, but by forming new habits. So, it’s a lot easier. You’re always gonna have that pathway, but if you’re developing newer pathways in your brain, then those are gonna override the old ones.
Peter Breen: Yeah. I’m gonna stay on this. Talk us through it. How would we… I want you to explain this.
Abby Gustaitis: Oh, goodness. Just a decade later out of school. Showing my age. Right, so you have neurons that are always firing, and every little thing that you do, whether you’re typing on a computer, you’re catching a ball, and then that exact thing, if you’re practicing it over and over, you’re layering those. And so, you’re building that path stronger than let’s say dropping the ball, or whatever else. A mistake. But by… I personally have found stopping when you’ve made a mistake and letting that sink in for a moment, and realizing exactly what you did, and then going back if time allows or if you’re not in the middle of a rugby 7s game, I’ve found that that’s maybe accelerated my new habits that I’m trying to form.
Whereas a lot of people teach, “Oh, just flush it. Move on. Next rep. You only had one chance.” And right, that’s life, so that is gonna happen, but in this practicing, where we’re trying to outwork our opponents and outlearn them as you use… Those are the little things that you can control. So, when I drop a high ball in training, I’m like, “Okay, what exactly was it that I did in that moment? Was it oh, I just looked down at the ground? Or my hands were too wide and then I tried to close them?” I try to relive that moment and then do the opposite in order to correct it, and then reciprocate that, so just try to do three additional reps in the proper way in order to cement that in.
Peter Breen: I think you used such a cool word there in the layers, of building the layers behind the good habit, and I also think, and I wonder if you’ve got an example, of coaches creating a drill or a certain time in training where you’re asking when you’re wanting players to try performing 110%, so they’re actually not being safe and really cautious.
A thing that I use with halfbacks is I want you to throw 110% bullet passes like as hard as possible. We’re gonna get some real things happen, but we’re pushing it. Have you kind of got something like that that you’ve used or seen?
Abby Gustaitis: So, I think with our transfer pass, like sort of if you’re first receiver let’s say, and defense is shooting up, and you just know you have to be a pivot and send that ball, and we’ve tried just similar to what you’re saying, just send it as hard as you can. Not even considering accuracy. And it’s been really interesting, and for me personally-
Peter Breen: Love it.
Abby Gustaitis: I spent a lot of time developing my left-handed pass, but the power behind it is not as good as my right, so I’ve tried to add in, “Okay, 10 passes every training session of me just firing it, like not even considering where it’s going.” And it really… It makes you think after of like, “Well, what am I doing to reserve, to hone into that accuracy that’s taking away my power, maybe?”
Peter Breen: Yeah. I love that example you used, because I had the exact same thing. I played first receiver and I… Yeah, the exact same similar mindset. And this guy came in and he executed this pass so fast, and I was like, “Holy shit. That is what a fast pass looks like.” And it just triggered. I was like, “Wow. I’ve been mucking around trying to be too cute for a long time. Just pull the trigger.” Well explained. You nailed it on the spot. You nailed it.
Abby Gustaitis: No one told me this was a high stress, high anxiety podcast.
Peter Breen: Yeah. True.
Abby Gustaitis: Just kidding.
Peter Breen: What’s the latest thing that you’ve learned or picked up on that, on what you’ve been studying, or read about? Is there something recently that you’ve really enjoyed learning, or you’ve heard?
Abby Gustaitis: Trying to think. Well, for me personally, I am always trying to improve on the mental aspect of training, including visualization, which has never been a huge part of my game, like some people just go to sleep before a big match and they’re like, “Oh, I watched the whole game in my head.” And I’m like, “How? What does that mean? How did you do that?” And so, I’ve really tried to add that in, and I’ve read a few articles of just like even with skills, and high ball receipts, I’ve tried to envision myself doing the skill, and like picturing… But not just doing it, like picturing the most perfect receipt, or the most perfect chase and two-handed catch.
And then I’ve actually done that right before the skills set, and I mean who knows if it’s helped yet, but that is… There’s a lot of research that’s gone into it.
Peter Breen: 100%.
Abby Gustaitis: So, that’s something that I’ve been trying to implement that is new to me, especially since quarantine. Had a lot of time on my hands, so…
Peter Breen: I wonder if you can answer this question. A lot of people say, “Sleep on it.” And I know that there’s definitely been studies when you’ve tried to learn something one day, you just can’t get it, it’s not happening. You sleep on it. You turn up the next day and then bang, you’re on fire. How does that happen? Don’t you have a degree? No, I’m joking.
Abby Gustaitis: And can you turn water into wine? No. But there is a lot of studies that have gone into that. In fact, like the book I just read was one of Daniel Coyle’s, like Talent Code, Culture Code, he’s written all those.
Peter Breen: Yep. Love it.
Abby Gustaitis: He talks about a study where a group of college kids go, they just study for 12 hours straight, and then one group takes 10 hours break, goes to sleep, comes back. The other group studies for 10 more hours but doesn’t sleep, and then the people who slept did 40% better or whatever the thing is. It’s like so unreal, but I’m a big believer in sleep, so you don’t have to try and change my mind.
Peter Breen: Yeah. 100%. Me too. When I started out this business, Rugby Bricks, by myself, I definitely in the first year did not use sleep as a weapon and as a tool, and then my business partner was like, “Listen to this podcast.” I learned about sleep and I was like, “Yeah.” I know that I think I’m outworking people, but there’s also doing things smart.
Abby Gustaitis: Exactly.
Peter Breen: Nadal, Rafael Nadal. The tennis player?
Abby Gustaitis: Yeah.
Peter Breen: Rafa Nadal. I know that he’s big for you with his mindset and how he does things. What are some things you’ve picked up and love about Rafa?
Abby Gustaitis: For me, it starts with humble beginnings with him, and he’s just like a small town guy, comes from a family in this part of Spain that everyone knows him, and he just… He’s worked his way to where he is, starting from a really young age, and he never accepted just… When he got ranked number one for the first time, he wasn’t complacent. He wasn’t comfortable. He lost a match. He went to the court and hit a thousand balls or whatever it is, and I think for me, it’s like he stayed true to his roots, but he also proved to himself and to his family that it doesn’t matter where you come from, and you can get to where you want to be, and no one’s stopping you but yourself.
The hard work, and yeah, his work ethic has just always been inspiring to me as an athlete.
Peter Breen: Yeah. I’m a huge fan, too. And I remember this press conference. It was Rafa versus Federer, and they asked Rafa why he plays his best tennis when he plays Roger, and he just answered by saying that it’s because I’m ready to play my best tennis. It’s got nothing to do with Federer. And I loved that, because he owned his own game, like he was the one that was ready. He’d put in the hours and it doesn’t really have much to do with Federer, and I thought that was such a cool thing, like, “I was ready to go. It had nothing to do with him.”
Tournaments. So, you’ve played for the USA for a while, and I’m always interested to understand how you’ve seen things evolve for the team. Obviously, being… Are you guys still co-captains? One of the captains? How you’ve seen the team evolve and get better at doing it. I’ve had a few yarns with a few of the New Zealand girls on how they’ve got better at tournaments. What are some things that you’ve noticed over your time with USA that you’ve got better at as a team?
Abby Gustaitis: I think the first thing that sticks out is the environment and the culture that we’ve created over the last few years. It used to sort of be every man for themselves, just fight to make that 12, and then, “Oh, hopefully we’ll come together and we’ll perform on the day.” And it’s we’ve spent a lot of time developing our team identity, and what our purpose is outside of rugby is, as well. And creating, like making sure everyone knows their self-worth in the team, and I think it’s really progressed us as a group. We’ve gotten a lot closer over the years, and especially this last year and a half, two years, with a new coach coming in, we had a few shifts in players, and now it seems like we have that core group, and everyone’s lending a hand to help. People are staying after training and asking questions, and they’re not directly going to the staff and saying, “Oh, what was the right thing to do here?” It’s like, “Oh no, we’re the ones out there, so we’re gonna talk to each other. We’re gonna try and problem solve and challenge one another, and then if we still need clarity, okay, we can work up the ladder and figure it out.”
Peter Breen: Yeah. The purpose is a real big one for me, and I know that you’re… It’s always a big thing to sort of influence the generation below, as well, and it sounds like that’s something you girls have tried to be great role models. What have some of the talks around that been like?
Abby Gustaitis: Right. So, rugby in America is still on the up, I hope. It seems like we’ve hit a bit of a plateau, but we’re trying to, just like every team is, you’re trying to leave the jersey better than you found it. You want to create more opportunities. Yes, you want to go, and medal, and do all those great things, but really it’s about the trail you’re creating. You want it to be easier for the next generation to see the path that they can take, and to climb that ladder, and not have to shell out a thousand bucks to go to a camp and fly across the country to even be seen by a coach.
But also, just-
Peter Breen: That’s what you had to do?
Abby Gustaitis: Oh, yes.
Peter Breen: Wow.
Abby Gustaitis: National team even. I think I was paying for camps until like three or four years ago.
Peter Breen: That’s amazing.
Abby Gustaitis: Yeah, so it’s been really cool to see it progress, and we still have tons of challenges, just like any team. Especially when you get into 15s and 7s. Luckily, 7s is funded differently, but I thin we want people to know what rugby is, and the inclusivity that it represents, and I think it can do a lot for the world, and the United States especially, but I don’t want people… I say, “Oh, I play rugby.” Like, “Oh, is that the one with the stuck, or is the net behind you?” And it’s like, “Oh no. Come on, guys. Get behind it.”
Peter Breen: Awesome. Awesome message. And the other one that I want to ask about is enjoy the process. It’s almost becoming like a bit of a phrase that gets overused, but as long as you know what enjoy the process to you means, so that’s the question. What does enjoy the process mean to you? But also, as one of the co-captains, what does it mean to the team? And how do you execute on it?
Abby Gustaitis: Nice. It’s a big part of our daily life, enjoying the process. I wake up every day grateful that I get to go toss a rugby ball around, or I get to set up some cones to do a drill. Not that many people get to do that in their lives and it’s a childhood dream come true. So, I try to remind myself of that and we talk about it as a group. There’s always something to strive for. There’s the Olympics, there’s Hong Kong hopefully in 2021, which the women hopefully get to play at for the first time. But it’s these every day, the showing up, with a smile on your face, the opportunity to learn, to get better, challenge yourselves against some of the best players in the world, and that’s something that we can’t take for granted, and that’s what builds our great performances at tournaments.
It's the running the Broncos, and then getting yelled at for 30 minutes because our skills were shit under fatigue, but it’s those moments I think that really bring us together as a group, and we have to remind each other that it’s not forever. It’s not everlasting. And just take it for what it is. You hear horror stories of athletes with career-ending things, and you just never know what’s gonna happen, but as long as we take each day in stride and try to stay present, as difficult as it is, I think that’s where we really get that enjoyment.
Peter Breen: You mentioned before about the team that was every man for themselves, and it sounds like you’re on a team that’s almost flipped that. How has that happened and who’s been important to make that happen?
Abby Gustaitis: Chris Brown coming in as the head coach helped that, and helped shape that culture a lot, as well as this past year, we had Warren Abrahams as our assistant coach, and he came in and challenged us, and they both really have highlighted the enjoyment factor. And before it was sort of like, “Okay, here’s the next tournament. Okay, here’s the next tournament.” And there wasn’t… We had a lot of crossovers. Being the U.S. team, not many people have played rugby for too long, so we took players from hockey, or soccer, or every sport. Probably table tennis. I don’t know.
So, before it was like we had this reserve in our team of not wanting to share what you know about rugby, and now we’ve broadened that to the team, our program, like we want our program to earn a medal in Tokyo. It’s not about you being an Olympian. And so, we’ve had this conversation a lot, right? Like what is more important to you, you becoming an Olympian or the program winning a medal? And I think if you asked our team that three years ago, or even before Rio, it would have been, “Oh, I want to go to the Olympics. That’s what I’m here for.” And it’s been a big challenge changing that narrative, honestly. But I think we’ve come to learn that the only way we are going to win a medal is if we come together, if we share all of our knowledge, we invest in ourselves and each other, and you fight for each other on the field.
Peter Breen: I think we often underestimate how hard it is to do something special, especially as a team, and there’s that many documentaries out nowadays that you can watch, and everyone that’s achieved something big, and with a lot of weight behind it, the story starts like four years ago, or 10 years ago, and when they’re actually on the field or on the court in that moment, the bond is so strong, so therefore you can get it done. So, that’s pretty cool. Must be hard for the brain to not say, “I just want to be an Olympian.”
Abby Gustaitis: No, it definitely is, and I think it’s in the back of everyone’s mind, like yeah, of course you want to represent your country on the highest sporting level. Growing up in the U.S., even if you didn’t watch TV, you watched the Olympics. That’s just how it is. It’s such a big thing. I mean, everywhere, but every four years, Summer Olympics come on, you’re glued to the television. But I think we’re moving in that right direction and this past year, we had a few hiccups on the circuit. We finished fifth, we finished eighth, which is like our worst performance in two years or something, and we weren’t playing with each other, and we weren’t playing as a team, and unfortunately that’s how our season ended, and we have to live with that performance for over a year, it seems like.
And so, that’s been pretty annoying, to be honest. But it’s also been a little chip on our shoulder, like, “Oh no, we have something to prove. That’s not the team that we are.”
Peter Breen: Yeah. Yeah, I’m really interested in this one, because obviously the U.S., the United States, I come from New Zealand, and we’ve obviously been going… We’ve all been going through COVID, but New Zealand locked down the country when they had 11 cases, which I know must be pretty amazing number to hear with what’s happening in the U.S. It’s not really my question about COVID, but what’s it like living in the U.S. at the moment with the Black Lives Matter movement, the president that you guys have, and I’m more interested in the team, because there must be so much frickin’ noise for you girls on the daily.
Abby Gustaitis: It’s been a crazy year. Unprecedented times, of course, for everyone, but yeah, everything’s sort of come to a head during these last few months, and it’s been a long time coming for Black Lives movement, and I think it’s bringing to light sort of what I touched on earlier, like our purpose as a team and what our mission is, and so we’ve really dove into those conversations. Granted, they’re all over Zoom, but they’re still happening, and it’s what do we want to stand for, and what can rugby do for our country or for the whole entire world? We’ve come together as a rugby team from all different backgrounds and I think that’s something we’ve seen a little bit across the world, and it’s been trying times I know for a lot of my teammates, and I’m in a little different position, but all I can do is educate myself and others, and continue to listen to them and have those hard conversations. But alongside COVID-
Peter Breen: There must be now… Sorry.
Abby Gustaitis: No, you’re good.
Peter Breen: That must be challenging, how you just mentioned that you’re in a slightly different position. Because there must be a lot of girls and people in America that feel that way, so yeah, it’s a hard position. And as a captain and as a leader of a group dealing with it, as well.
Abby Gustaitis: Definitely. I’ve just tried to educate myself as much as possible and talk to my teammates, and hear different experiences, and I stand beside all of my teammates 100%, and we are trying to take a stand as a team, as well. A lot more goes into it being like just women’s 7s underneath all of USA Rugby, and the Olympic committee. Now, of course all of those have taken their stand and made statements, but we’re just trying to show how rugby encompasses everyone. There’s no judgment. It’s equality across the board. How can we translate that into our day to day?
Peter Breen: Yeah. Yeah. Awesome explanation. I suppose moving on from there, I want to hear your outwork story, so our sort of motto with Rugby Bricks is outwork, outlearn. Is there a time that you can remember back to where you just outworked people? And I know you got cut from a team. It may have been one, but can you remember back to a time where you just went after it?
Abby Gustaitis: Yeah. I was trying to think about this, actually. I like to think I outwork a lot of people on the normal, but I think a specific example was I didn’t get picked for… It was Kitakyushu in 2018, and I had gone to the previous two tournaments, played a lot of minutes, and then I got a little complacent, and I was, “Okay, I’m fine. I played. I started. I’m in a good spot.” And then slowly the weeks went on as we were prepping for the next tournament and then the roster comes out and my name wasn’t on the list, and I was shocked, but then on reflection, I was like, “Well, what did I do to prove that my name should be on that list? What was my mentality?”
Peter Breen: Why did you get cut?
Abby Gustaitis: I didn’t make that team because he said he was giving someone else an opportunity who showed their work ethic and their skillset, and they were playing the same position as me, and just said it was a tossup and he went that route because he saw the desire in her. And I was just like, “Okay. Well…”
Peter Breen: Wow.
Abby Gustaitis: Damn. What was I doing? And then after I had that conversation, I had to check myself, because I was not putting in all of my efforts every training to prove that I deserve to be on the team, that I deserve to play on the Circuit, and it was like that. So, the team comes out, and then you have a week to train together before the team leaves for tour, and I just went nuts, like every kickoff was mine, every receipt, I was at every breakdown, and just zooming around, doing my job to the best of my abilities, and encouraging my teammates, and I remember we made the team leaving for tour not look great. And so, I just wanted to prove like, “Hey, this is what I bring to the table.”
But that was my own fault for now showing that day in and day out. Like when you’re in a full-time training environment, every day matters, and I learned a really hard lesson by not getting to go on that tour, and then I got selected for the next tour after that week of training. Because they were pretty close. The two tournaments were pretty close to each other, so we didn’t have a lot of time to train in between. And then I remember going into my first game back and I was a sub, and I was pissed again that I was a sub, and I was like, “Come on!” And then the moment I went in and it was a kickoff, and I went, and I got the kickoff back, and then I sort of like got it together and I was like, “Okay, Abby. You’re here. You’re doing your job. Now just let’s focus in on the team.”
Peter Breen: You mentioned at the start that on the daily you feel like you do outwork people. I’m not gonna ask you to explain what you do. What I’m gonna ask is if you were to tell a young, up-and-coming girl or boy about how to outwork people, what would you tell them to do on the daily?
Abby Gustaitis: Well, I would say this is a little lame, but the three things that… I read this. The three things you can control in any situation is your attitude, your preparation, and your effort. And it’s really stuck with me, and so for me, it’s always about those three things, and your attitude is the easiest thing you can check, and then… So, preparation comes in with outworking, and for me, it’s doing every little thing to the best of your abilities. I guess that partially effort, as well, but not ever settling and getting complacent, which is where that’s how I’ve learned one of the harder lessons of my life, and just continuing to challenge. Just challenge yourself. You’re always gonna challenge your teammates and those besides you, but as long as you are doing better than you did before, then I think you’re in the right path and you’re outworking yourself.
Peter Breen: Yeah. Great advice. You know, I suppose where I want to go from there is one of your habits, like you’re 29 now. I suppose what’s something that you’ve done or brought into life more recently that keeps you on and keeps you really going? Obviously, sleep’s a big one.
Abby Gustaitis: I was gonna say sleep.
Peter Breen: Maybe it’s explain what effect sleep has had for you, because it’s important. Yeah, it’s so important, and maybe how you do at a tournament, like how do you nail sleep at a tournament?
Abby Gustaitis: Okay. So, for me sleep is my number one recovery tool. I literally set aside 10 hours that I want to be laying in my bed. Like I might not be asleep that whole time, but I want to be chill, no screens, relaxing, and I’m a huge reader, so I always read before bed, and I think that it’s like relaxing, it switches your mind off when it’s going a million miles a minute throughout the day, especially in training. You’re constantly questioning what you’re doing, what they’re doing, you’re watching film. It’s a lot. And so, I think it’s a way to switch off. You can just dive into something.
You don’t always have to read a self-help book, or a leadership book. Those are good too, but they’re not really that great for pre-bed unwinding. And so, I’m also one of those weird sleep mask people. I think those are really helpful. And yeah, so it’s just all about turning off for me.
Peter Breen: Yeah. That’s been proven, like so many studies have been done that sleep just… Yeah, like what you mentioned before about the two groups of students studying, and athletes, and even some of the stats that come out with athletes, how they execute their skills and shooting percentages and stuff like that. How do you juggle that? Because when you go to a tournament in this amazing city, and the girls are all going to watch a movie, and you’re like, “I’ve gotta get my 10 hours.” I suppose that’s that selfish athlete. You have to just do what you gotta do.
Abby Gustaitis: Yeah. That’s what I was gonna say. I get called a loner, or like anti-social, grandma. I mean, the list goes on, but at the end of the day, I’m the one who’s pretty rested going into the next day. Especially with those early starts on tournament days. I gotta chill out. But luckily, the staff and everyone, they make it pretty easy for us to unwind and relax on tournaments. There’s a… We have to fill out like a roommate survey before every tour of like if you’re an early to bed, early to rise, or if you’re a light sleeper, whatever it is, and then once you’ve been around for a bit, you usually have a roommate or two that know you pretty well, and they’ll get along pretty easily to get that shut eye.
Peter Breen: Yeah. That’s so cool. Your time in Australia. You came over and played. I know a few of the girls that I coach know you and had a bit to do with you, so how did that come about? How was the experience? What did you learn?
Abby Gustaitis: Oh, man. I think Australia is just one of my favorite places. The people there are absolutely-
Peter Breen: Where were you?
Abby Gustaitis: I was in Cronulla for most of it. But my first trip there, I went and played for Canberra in the Uni 7s, and let me tell you, Canberra is not what I pictured when I pictured coming to Australia for the first time. I was like, “Yeah, I’m gonna be on the beach. This is gonna be the life. I’ll play a little rugby.” And then I was like, “Where the hell am I?” And it was August.
Peter Breen: That’s so funny.
Abby Gustaitis: Yeah. But yeah. No, I ended up… One of my… My club coach had connected with Tim Walsh at the time. He was still the women’s coach. And he mentioned this tournament, and so my teammate and I, club teammate, we both went over. She played for Tasmania, which was a whole nother thing, like her going to… She was like, “Where the hell am ?” And so-
Peter Breen: There’s a reason that there were spots on those teams.
Abby Gustaitis: Exactly. I was like, “Where is Bond University? Why is that team full? I’m confused.” But no, yeah, so I ended up staying for a few extra weeks and I played for what was then called Pride 7s in Central Coast, and I trained in Cronulla, or Caringbah, technically, and just went through a four week S&C program, played a couple tournaments, and I just fell in love with the place, the training environment. I became really close with Cassie Staples, and connected me there, and it was… And then I went back again the year after that, and then I luckily got to play in Sidney 7s twice, and I stayed after both times, and it’s just like formed a second family down there, and I just love it.
Peter Breen: What do you think you picked up from playing? I played 7s in New Zealand, and when you play provincial 7s in New Zealand, you come up against some freaks of athletes and talent. And I just remember, like it was the best thing for my defense, like I’m having to deal with these guys. What was something that you sort of… You weren’t getting in the U.S., that maybe you got exposed to in Australia?
Abby Gustaitis: So, I had played mixed touch for a year prior to going over there, and that had really elevated my game, just playing next to guys, and the speed, and just touch in general. I’d never played it competitively, just obviously like pickup right before you have training, and that’s just a complete joke. But so, going and playing there, a lot of the girls came from touch background, and you know, in contact they might not have been ideal, but just the ball skills were unmatched to… Especially comparing club level to here in the U.S., it’s very much the opposite. It’s more like, “Oh, who can out-physical the other team to get across? Who can break through and maybe get an offload?”
But there, it’s very… A lot of finesse, I would say. Funny story. I play prop, and my first game there, we played Bond, and they put me in the centers, and scrum, there’s a scrum, and I’m like walking over to the scrum. They’re like, “No, no, Abby, you’re in the center.” And I was like, “Oh, right. Okay.” So, I get… Who’s across from me? Charlotte. Charlotte Caslick. And I was like, “Great. This is gonna be really awesome.” And she just turns me in and out and I was just standing there, just like, “Please, someone put me back in the scrum.”
And I’ve come a long way from then and it really helped me progress as an athlete and player, but I just remember being just so embarrassed, and I was like… and I hadn’t played on the circuit at that point for the U.S. yet, and so I was like, “Nice.”
Peter Breen: Yeah. Those experience where you just get absolutely done. Yeah, you either sink or swim. You either don’t play again or you decide, “Well, I’ve gotta fix this.” I want to ask you about Charlotte, because I’ve had her on the podcast, and the thing that came across from Charlotte was she is an absolute killer on the field. She is just there to win. And relentless. And I guess speaking to the younger generation, and I’m picking it up for you, as well, is like just that competing on every play, that effort is a big thing. How do you get there inside yourself? How do you build on that? Because I think within boys and males, and we’re a little bit arrogant and confident, I can do anything. Whereas sometimes with females, it has to be just given a little bit.
Abby Gustaitis: Just that competitive edge? Or just that mindset? Is that… Yeah. Honestly, well, I grew up with two older brothers in the household, and I just got crushed my whole entire childhood, just like, “No, you’re in the wrong. Punch. You’re this.” I got pushed down. I got pushed off a trampoline, and my nose was bleeding, and my brothers go… Or then they punched me in the face. They’re like, “Oh, go tell mom you fell down.” I’m like, “Mom, I fell down.” I’m like, “Why did I just do that? Why didn’t I just say I got punched in the face? I’m so confused.”
But I think that sort of made me… It built me a backbone from a young age, and then just… I always wanted to play sport. I played baseball with my brothers, because our softball team got cut, and I was a pitcher, and, “Their pitcher’s a girl! Oh! She can’t throw!” And so, it was just like those little things that I think over the years slowly built me up, and then finding rugby, I never played a physical sport like that, and it’s unreal. I mean, it still is, the amount of contact, and it shocks everyone still, because we don’t play, don’t hear about rugby, I guess.
But from then, I think I just now, I see the drive in my teammates, as well, and I think that’s what kind of like gets me going, too. Especially when we’re there for a tournament. The belief in one another I think is so cool when that… We’ve had to build that over the years, like earlier, when I was saying about our team, and I didn’t feel that. I didn’t have that fight for one another, and so that… And then you just kind of always want to like one-up people, and I think that is… It’s really deep rooted in me, that I could never one-up my brothers, so now I’m like, “Okay. Well, now I’m on an equal playing field with people, so I can do it now.”
Peter Breen: Yeah. That’s such an interesting one, and I think your brothers definitely had a part to play. And just to wrap up, I’m gonna just ask you about your dad and sort of what he means to you, and as a role model, but just with that, those situations you’re in, like in the baseball team, and on the field, I reckon the best advice that I try to give is just stand your ground. And I think that if that’s all you do, you’re probably gonna be successful. Like you don’t always have to be the loud one and the aggressor, but when it comes down to it, stand your ground and don’t take that backwards step on the field, but also in life, as well.
So, yeah, moving onto your dad, I know he plays a big, big part, and also to wrap on this question. How has he kind of influenced you and led you to be Abby?
Abby Gustaitis: Yeah. Love my dad. He’s been the day one, and I was actually thinking about this the other day, and so he was a volunteer firefighter, and so we grew up in the fire department, and my brothers and I would just run around, just being kids, but I realized he… We moved to a new town when I was like five, and he joined that fire department, and I just watched him work his way through the ranks to become the local fire chief. And looking back, I just remember, like I always was so proud, and idolized him, and I watched him just become this leader for another group of people that he had dove into this new community, and just rose up, and I just think it was so cool and inspiring to me that it made me just go out there and just want to be the best version of myself, and to make him proud as well as my mom.
But I think he’s really driven me to be that task-oriented leader and by example, and we both have that work on of empathy and relationships with personnel or teammates, and I’m constantly working on it. But he would very easily run into a burning building, just as much as he could stand outside and run the scene and divvy up tasks and tell personnel what to do. And I like to think that that’s what I would do on the rugby field, as well. Like I’ll go do it, or I can manage the group, as well, and that sort of led partially to my leadership style, is sort of like do what you’re telling other people to do. You gotta do the hard work, as well, but also communication styles and getting the job done, and he’s just supported me endlessly. He drove to all my games growing up.
Like basketball, we’re playing a couple hours away, he’s there, and yeah, just meant… It means a lot to me. It still does. And just I hear him telling people about me and it cracks me up, like, “Oh, my daughter’s on the USA Rugby team.” He’s just so proud, and I think for me, I just… That’s what I’m after. I just wanted to make him proud and my family proud. As well as myself, like I feel that responsibility, but they did everything for me growing up, and so…
Peter Breen: That’s so cool.
Abby Gustaitis: Special.
Peter Breen: You said what I was thinking about get the job done, and as a leader, doesn’t really matter how we get this job done, whether I have to do it, or we do it, or you do it. Just get the job done. So, such a cool message. Thanks for that, Abby. It’s been awesome chatting and I know we went all over the place and challenged you a few times, which is always great. But I guess for me, there’s a photo on your page of all the captains of the team walking towards the camera, and just when I looked at those girls and looked across, I was like, “Yeah, we’re on the right track with the women’s game and these girls have come a long way. They’re all amazing at what they do and world class.” And I think that yeah, you’re definitely one of them, so keep doing what you’re doing.
Abby Gustaitis: Thanks, Pete. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me. It’s been an absolute pleasure and I’ll go brush up on my neurobiology for round two.
Peter Breen: Yes, right. When you’re back on the podcast in a year or two, I need some more information.
Abby Gustaitis: Exactly.
Peter Breen: But thanks so much.
Abby Gustaitis: Appreciate it.
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