As England tight-head prop, Kyle Sinkler, was pole-axed to the ground, rendered unconscious by an accidental blow to the head from one of his own players, his team’s Rugby World Cup dream ended.
Of course, my England rose-coloured spectacles may be distorting reality, and perhaps England were never going to be a match for the brutally skilful South African side, who went on to take a vice-like grip on the game.
But, for me, that was a defining moment. Sinkler’s replacement, Dan Cole, had a torrid time in the scrum against South Africa’s Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira, and England’s game plan unravelled as they went on to concede six scrum penalties, and to lose all hope of lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy.
Ultimately, England lost their composure, lost their heads, and, crucially, lost control.
One week earlier, against the mighty All Blacks, it had been different. England’s 19-7 semi-final victory was secured on the back of a heady mixture of superb defensive organisation, bone-crunching tackles and incisive speed of thought which propelled them to the final… and that mauling at the hands of The Springboks.
And yet, from failure springs opportunity.
For England, there is now the opportunity to evolve, to fashion this side, the youngest World Cup team in the professional era, into something truly special. For the rest of us, there is the opportunity to interpret the successes and failures of England’s World Cup journey in ways that can help us in our businesses, in our roles as leaders, and in our everyday lives.
Below, extrapolated from the detail of England’s World Cup performances, are 3 key learning points for wresting back control of your work and your life.
- Prepare, prepare, prepare!
‘By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.’ Benjamin Franklin’s words ring true even now.
Let’s first accept that the concept of what is and what isn’t failure is subjective. Some might view the fact that England didn’t win the Rugby World Cup as clear evidence of failure, for example, whilst others might regard their wonderful, majestic race to the final as an obvious sign of progress and, therefore, of success.
What is obvious, however, is that however you define a successful outcome, there needs to be a plan in place to achieve it. Coach Eddie Jones’ decision to reintroduce George Ford in the semi-final against the All Blacks was clearly part of a bigger plan given that he had ‘dropped’ him in the previous game.
And the plan paid off as Ford tortured The Kiwis with his range of precision kicking. The embodiment of measured, calculating control, Ford never let up, and never gave England’s illustrious opponents the time or space to think.
It’s vital to take the time to formulate a plan to save time later. Planning, as long as that planning is focused, is never time wasted.
- Define success then put a plan in place to achieve it.
- If you lead a team, get to know your team from the inside out. What are their strengths and what motivates them? Do their talents need to be kept on the side-lines for a short while then unleashed for maximum gain, or would it be better to keep them in the game and to nurture them through the inevitable challenges so that they can blossom in due course?
- Be consistent. Like Ford, never let up. Regular actions every day, executed as part of a bigger plan, are far better than a haphazard scattergun approach.
2. Be consistent to create momentum
Great things can be achieved, and momentum built, by doing the small things well and by doing them consistently. This idea can be applied to life too.
England’s victory against the All Blacks was created, not just within the match itself, but in the years of building towards it where team selections were trialled, judgement calls made and players either integrated into the squad, or else dropped.
Leading up to the finals, relationships were nurtured amongst players, and between players and coaches, performances were constantly scrutinised and reflected upon, and diet, individualised training plans and meeting the psychological needs of the England players were all treated as an integral part of the grand plan; nothing was left to chance. Victory at any stage of a World Cup competition really is a team game.
As well as this attention to detail off field, on field, England’s small wins helped build the momentum that carried them through the match:
Ford was consistent, kicking four penalties to keep the scoreboard ticking over, and constantly forcing the New Zealand back three to play on the turn with his immaculate kicking game.
England’s defence was consistently solid, frequently driving their opponents backwards with the force of their tackles.
Handling was consistent, crisp and accurate.
Consistent excellence at the lineout (apart from the aberration that led to the New Zealand try) allowed a foothold in the game from which England were able to launch their attacks.
What is clear is that small steps, executed well, lead to marginal gains, which ultimately lead to greater success. You can do this too, by working out the small steps that would make a difference in your own context, consistently following them through, reflecting on the results and making any changes necessary.
- Building momentum is a creative process. Use your intuition and skill as your guide for deciding which steps to take and in what order to take them. Focus on the things you can control whilst keeping the bigger desired goal on the horizon.
- Once you decide on your initial steps, take massive ACTION to achieve them. For more on the power of taking ’90 days of massive action’, see Michael Heppell’s How to be Brilliant.
- Keep reflecting on whether your actions have moved you closer to the outcomes you seek, then adjust accordingly. There is no failure if you focus on the process and remain adaptable. Read Will it Make the Boat go Faster? to see how the British Olympic rowing team approached this.
- Share the small successes to engage the emotions. You need to be able to rely on the cold, hard logic of your brain, and the brains of your team, but momentum is also built on the positive gut-level feelings of those mini victories along the way.
- You attract more of what you focus on, so make sure you focus on the positive to build momentum. I once read a great little book called Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, by Richard Carlson. In it, he refers to ‘the snowball effect of your thinking’.
I love this metaphor, because it reminds me that, if I’m not careful, it’s easy to have a (snow)ball of negative thoughts spinning round in my head. The point is, though, that whilst you can get into negative thinking habits, you can also get into the flow of thinking positively. Doing this consistently actually changes the ‘wiring’ in the brain and will propel you into taking a series of positive actions as your momentum builds towards your goals.
3. Take responsibility
For me, England’s World Cup campaign was a success because they reached the final, beat The All Blacks, and discovered a lot about their strengths and weaknesses. Enabling each player to understand their part in controlling the outcome of games contributed to that success.
But just understanding something isn’t enough. Each player must also take responsibility for following their individualised training and diet regime, as well as for their actions on the pitch. Whilst a game plan is always in place, this must be flexible, because a rugby match is dynamic and always changing. It’s down to the individual players to control their response to the massive range of challenges that face them.
That is true in life too.
- Invest in your own personal development. In particular, look for a programme that increases awareness of your strengths so that you can use these to deal successfully with the inevitable challenges that will face you every day.
- Make sure that you are able to flex and remain adaptable. Being able to change your plan in an instant is necessary in the dynamic world of work and life in general. Adaptability is a hallmark of resilience.
- It’s tough once the pressure is on but aim to respond rather than react in difficult situations. Be clear that reactive behaviours rarely produce the outcomes you are looking for.