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Touchline Teachings – The Parallels Between Business and Rugby

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

Rugby…the sport for thugs played by gentlemen, or in my case, the sport for thugs played by a gentleman in training.

Just like the 15 different positions on a rugby pitch, each role within a business requires a very specific skillset. A fullback may be able to hold his own playing in the Centres, but a winger wont last a single scrum as hooker or a prop. One size does not fit all and the same applies to every business environment.

Growing up in a football dominated city like Liverpool isn’t ideal when you’ve got two left feet, my only memory of ever playing football competitively resulted in me scoring an own goal and then being sent off, so as you can imagine, when I got to my first year in senior school and discovered there was a different shaped ball that I could control with my hands rather than my feet, I bought in immediately.

Despite only ever playing rugby to an amateur level (and we use the word ‘playing’ very loosely) there has still been plenty I have taken from the sport that have parallels with other aspects of my life. As a young rugby player you are taught a few basic core values which before long become the pillars of your playing career: Respect, Teamwork and Work Ethic.

Let's start by looking at Respect, something I now have abundance of, for other players, officials and spectators alike. Those of you familiar with the sport will know that we address the referee as ‘sir’, unfortunately, 12 year old James wasn’t aware of this, and on one of his very first school rugby games managed not only to call the referee ‘mate’, but also told him p*ss off after a decision didn’t go our way. Being dragged to the side lines by our school rugby coach after being yellow carded and being told this was ‘the first and last game I would ever play for this school’ was a definite turning point for me.

The more you play the game the more you understand how important it to respect everyone around you. Unlike football, you can knock seven shades of shit out of your opponent on the rugby pitch, but as soon as that final whistle goes, we shake hands, clap each other off the pitch, and then its in to the clubhouse to buy each other a pint. As time went on my outbursts became less and less frequent (thankfully), and I did manage to play for my school team again, captaining them to Lancashire Plate final victory in my 3rd year at the school.

The older I got the more I started to see how my playing rugby was helping grow and develop off the pitch as well, and moving into my adult years I began to see this pay off more and more when it came to my career and the business I was working for. There was one stand out realisation that I could apply to both business and rugby…without a good team it is impossible to succeed.

This brings me on to the second core value, teamwork. From a rugby point of view, teamwork is having absolute trust in the other 14 players on your team, that they are going to do their job, which in turn allows you to do yours, its also being able to help other players on the pitch when needed, if they need an extra man at the ruck, or that 7ft monster your mate has just tackled is still standing and needs another hit. Without good teamwork the whole team falls apart, if one person isn’t doing their job, this makes everyone else’s jobs harder.

It’s the same in business, you need to have 100% faith and support in the team around you that they are going to do their job to the best of their ability, but at the same time be willing to help out when needed. Yes we all have our individual job titles and roles within our respective businesses, and we all have our own tasks, projects and deadlines, but it’s the collective team effort that comes from building a tight knit unit that leads to success as a whole. Are you prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with the members of your team, and face the mighty All Blacks as they perform their Maori war dance ‘The Haka’? If not…it’s the sin bin for you!

The final value is work ethic. Good old fashioned hard work, elbow grease, not being afraid to get your hands dirty. It’s that winger who’s 75kg on a good day, throwing himself full force at a 120kg prop, and just hoping for the best (I’ve been in that situation and trust me it very rarely ends well). But it’s not just about trying to make that one tackle, getting brushed off and just giving up, its trying time and time and time again, despite the odds being against you, its being relentless in your attempt to stop this boulder with legs standing in front of you.

The same applies in business, there will be tasks and projects where you feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall. But it’s the perseverance, resilience and hard work that goes into it which makes the difference. If there is one thing I can take from playing rugby when it comes to hard work it is that when you're trying your absolute hardest, there’s always a team member on hand to back you up when needed. It might not be immediately apparent, but taking a step back, re-evaluating the situation you are in, and going at it from a different angle, or letting someone else add their perspective, may just be the difference between success or failure.

There’s one thing I’ve forgot to mention, which kind of makes everything above completely redundant (probably should have started with this but here we are…). You NEED a good leader.

Leader, Captain, Coach, Mentor, CEO, MD, Director, doesn’t matter who it is, they need to lead by example. There’s a reason why all communication to the referee on a rugby pitch goes through the captain, because he is the person best placed to lead that team to victory.

He is the player who orchestrates the speedy backs and forward pack, and whose immediate decisions dominate play tactics. They need to understand the strengths of all the players on the field and bind diverse functions together into one reactive, dynamic collective.

Here’s some homework for you (sorry kids!). Watch ‘Building Jerusalem’, which tells the story of the England National Rugby Union team’s rise to World Cup glory in 2003. After countless defeats, a chronically underperforming England team needed to change, Head Coach Sir Clive Woodward, Captain Martin Johnson, and Fly Half Jonny Wilkinson (hero) would be the ones to make the difference. Just watch it…you’ll see what I mean, and you’ll see just many core rugby values cross over in to modern business settings. (swing low, sweet chariot plays quietly in the background).

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