Lessons from the Rugby Pitch

In just a few days, on November 1st, the United States Eagles, our national rugby team, will take on the New Zealand All Blacks in an international rugby test match. The All Blacks, which is the national rugby team, is inarguably the most dominant team of any sport from any era. Over the past 100 years or so, they have won approximately 75% of their matches; since 2006, they have 94 wins, 1 draw and 24 losses. A few weeks ago they lost their first match in 24 test matches – their only loss in almost three years (and they did win their very next match!). Think about that for a second. This is a sport that was, until 1995, an amateur pastime, and it now boasts one of most dominant sports teams in history.

All Blacks Photo by Kiwi Flickr

Photo Credit: Kiwi Flickr Some Rights Reserved

Even companies, in their quests for market domination, are hard pressed to match the longevity and success rate of the All Blacks. In James Kerr’s book Legacy – 15 Lessons in Leadership, he writes that the All Blacks maintain their competitive edge because of their club’s commitment to learning and improving both as individual players and as an organization. Organizations that do this by leveraging feedback to not only improve behavior but also to reinforce desired behaviors, as the All Blacks do, are ones that have the best shot at going the distance.

It’s all about the process.

Feedback is a process tool, and it’s often everywhere we look. For instance, when a rugby team plays a match, all they have to do is glance at the scoreboard at the end to know whether or not they have performed well. If it seems simple, it is. And when properly applied, the feedback loop is very straightforward and incredibly effective: an action is taken; that action is observed and assessed; and then feedback is provided. The one who receives that information then processes and reflects on it prior to taking the next action.

Why does it work?

The feedback-focused process is effective because it ties back into Daniel Pink’s three motivational factors: purpose, mastery and autonomy (Drive, 2009). It will influence one or more of them by:

  • helping the individual learn or improve a skill;
  • showing how an individual’s behavior connects with the team’s purpose or drives value;
  • giving an individual control over how s/he incorporates the feedback.

At its core, feedback is ultimately about the process, not the outcome. When well delivered, it is objective information about observed behaviors that isn’t influenced by emotions. A very popular method of feedback, especially in sports, is film study. Replaying a performance – without attaching feelings to what a person’s seeing – is the most accurate feedback there is. A person can’t accuse video evidence of being biased; and if s/he can disassociate emotions from the experience, there is a lot to be learned by watching the highs and lows of one’s performance. This is the embodiment of “reflection” and a key step in realizing personal and professional improvement.

Brian O’Driscoll, an Irish international rugby player, was asked if he visualized himself holding the championship cup over his head when he trained. He responded:

Thinking about the outcome will get you nowhere. It really will not get you nowhere. It will be about the function and the process of every situation, you find yourself in and doing the best you can top create that outcome.”

His emphasis on the process and ways to improve it are proof that if you focus on the journey, then the outcome will take care of itself.

At the end of the day, feedback is what helps individuals and organizations become champions.

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