Playing for a cause, not a victory, did it for the Bokke

When we’re motivated by something bigger than ourselves, something we come to passionately believe in, we can move mountains – or lift the Rugby World Cup. Some eighteen months ago, the Springboks were losing games hand over fist and it seemed like they’d never move out of the foothills, let alone reach the peak of world rugby. Yet a few key mind-shifts enabled unique and stellar qualities, born of adversity, struggle and a felt sense of the millions of fellow South African who triumph daily against seemingly overwhelming odds, to do the job. High-performance coach Tim Goodenough, analyses here what made coach Rassie Erasmus and his players reach the very top and produce an astonishing performance against the World Cup favourites, England, at the Yokohama Stadium in Japan. They turned the traditional pressure of having to triumph against their opponents into playing for an entire nation’s greater dreams and hopes, humbly accepted the faith placed in them and played out of gratitude and privilege. Go and match that! It’s about far more than winning, and our Bokke used that energy to turbo-boost their considerable skills, experience and discipline. – Chris Bateman

7 Key lessons from the 2019 Springbok Rugby World Cup Victory

By Tim Goodenough*

The streets of South Africa are buzzing. Hope is in the air, strangers are talking, people smiling and the green and gold Springbok jersey is being worn proudly on every second block. Just a few days ago, in Yokohama Stadium, Japan the Springbok Rugby Team famously won the Rugby World Cup and ignited a wave of excitement, patriotism and hope in South Africa and beyond. They beat their more fancied opponents England convincingly 32-12 in a dominant display of rugby and then went on to use their winning platform to convert their win into a message of hope and a call to arms for fellow South African’s.

“We are so grateful to the people of South Africa. We have so many problems in our country but a team like this, we come from different backgrounds, different races but we came together with one goal and we wanted to achieve it.” – Siya Kolisi, Springbok Captain

The Springboks management team and players will embark on a multi city celebration tour in the coming days, and so whilst the excitement and hope is high it is an important time to unpack 7 Key Lessons of their success so we can apply them into our own homes, businesses, schools and communities.

1. Connect to a vision that is about more than winning

Commentators in sport often say that the team who, “wanted it more” was the winning team. This is not accurate, nor useful. What they are trying to describe is what we can observe when a team is performing at its peak: high levels of energy, massive effort, connectedness, fun or enjoyment, laser focus, consistent quality decisions making, accuracy etc.

Unfortunately these commentators are describing another outcome, not what the origin of that set of positive outcomes is. A team who is performing at their peak is almost always performing whilst connected to one or more high level meanings. Sometimes this is called performing with purpose, other times living your vision, the label doesn’t matter, what is important, is to understand what is happening here to be able to reliably replicate it.

We know from Self-Actualisation psychology and Viktor Frankel’s work that having a meaning that is about someone or something that is more than yourself is one of the key ingredients of self-actualising individuals and teams. Wanting to win is not enough, every team wants to win.

This World Cup winning Springbok team had a collection of high level meanings that they were able to consistently live more and more of, their social media campaign of #StrongerTogether captured the ethos of the team. There were other beliefs that came across in press conferences, interviews and through social media.

Also read:Kevin McCallum: Here’s to the game that made me believe, once again, in hope & heroes

“We all have our different things that we love rugby for (in this team), but at the end of the day we came together and we made sure that the Springboks and South Africa was the most important thing and we fought for one another and the guys have always been there for one another. … I know a get a lot of credit for my leadership but I don’t say it enough, I have so many leaders in this team that inspire me… I look so much up to them…I am really grateful these are some of my heroes that I am playing with.” – Siya Kolisi, Springbok Captain

“For me coaching South Africa we got some challenges there and the way our management, our assistant coaches and our players stood up, this specific year with the challenges, I am really really proud to be South African… We believed in three things. The first one was really hard work, because we believed we had the players, we have the supporters, we have the resources. Luck was number two, we needed a lot of luck and the third one was probably destiny. If we talk about destiny in South Africa we needed some good news and we thought it is our time and we are going to give destiny a hell of a go and work really hard, so yes we believed we had a chance (of winning the World Cup). Not a great chance because there are so many great coaches and great teams and players, but we gave ourselves a chance and here we stand. Destiny proved to be on our side.” – Rassie Erasmus, Springbok Coach

Actionable takeaway No 1: What vision is knocking on your door and asking you and your team to step up to?

2. Align Leadership through trust, honesty and meaning

“Visions are out there in the world, waiting for a leadership team to catch.” – Professor Peter Hawkins, Master Systemic Team Coach

Rassie Erasmus, the Springbok Coach, caught this vision of wanting to bring hope and inspiration to South Africa and build on what previous World Cup winning rugby teams had done. One of his first decisions as coach was to ask Siya Kolisi to be his captain, a man he had known and built a relationship with when Siya was still in school. Rassie bought Siya to Western Province to continue his rugby development as an 18 year old and their relationship progressed from there. Through honest conversations and over time the vision became more fine-tuned, so much so that if any Springbok coach, leader or player was involved in an interview or press conference you would hear variations of the same things. Stronger together, creating hope, working hard for each other, the team over the individual, representing all of South Africa, working as one, etc.

Leadership in a High Performance environment in about 3 things.

Leaders must:

  1. Be the standard
  2. Hold the standard
  3. Push the standard

At the bare minimum a leader must at least be the standard, however that is not as common as you may think. Exceptional leaders both are the standard and hold the standard and world class leaders do all three. This team needed their leadership to lead at all three levels to succeed, especially because they had only been together for 18 months.

Actionable takeaway No 2: At what level is your leadership? And what are you doing to move it up a level and/or be more consistent?

3. Hold the standards of the group to support the vision

Culture can be described as “the way we do things around here.” Culture is NOT what your values say, not what is written on the wall or even your history. Values, or in this case standards only become real when there is mutual accountability.

Values or standards without accountability is just graffiti on a poster.

“He (Erasmus) told us it has to change, the Springboks are more important than our personal goals. People lost salary to come and see us play. It changed our mindset, we cut off social media and we put heart and soul on the field. He is always honest with us. You always knew where you stood – we are really grateful.”  – Siya Kolisi, Springbok Captain

On the night of the World Cup final, recently retired Beast Mtwarira the loosehead Prop and powerhouse from the Cell C Sharks had arguably his best game for the Springboks in recent memory. Although he only played 44 mins (just over half of the game) he dominated his opponent and was a big part in South Africa gaining a healthy scoreboard lead and the emotional ascendancy in the final. Beast has been playing international rugby since 2008 and had a record 117 caps for his country, however his form over the last year has been as good anytime in his career. The healthy competition for places between him and Steven Kitshoff raised the level of both their games. The same came be said for the competition between the hookers; Bongi Mbonambi and Malcom Marx, both world class players who have developed significantly under coach Rassie Erasmus. This pattern of healthy competition for places and individual growth was repeated throughout the squad. Kolisi shard that Erasmus would, “call people out or praising them in a group, together, so everyone knew what was expected of them and the person next to them.”

Actionable takeaway No 3: What are your holding your team accountable for? Can you have deeply challenging AND respectful conversations?

4. Humility

I learnt through my research and development for my “Game Changer Protocol” book and online course that to be truly humble requires a lot of self-esteem. Successful people, high level performers and in particular sports stars are constantly being praised (and in the case of athletes especially, oftentimes criticised) for what they do, and not very often acknowledged at the same level for who they are.

It’s easy to link your value to a role, a performance, status, a bank account, being smart, being right, your looks/weight etc. It is far more common to have your self-worth linked to something on the outside than people think.

Humility is when you have gone through a process to insource your value again, to truly believe, know and experience that you are enough, that you are worthy and that you matter even when you fail, make big mistakes and are heavily criticised.

“I never dreamed of a day like this at all. When I was a kid all I was thinking about was getting my next meal.” – Siya Kolisi, Springbok Captain

Humility is a powerful leadership amplifier that is often an outcome of overcoming adversity. Not all people who overcome adversity have humility, however most people who have humility have overcome adversity. Siya Kolisi’s inspiring life story away from rugby of overcoming poverty and embracing fatherhood for his young family and step-siblings is a great example of this type of process.

Humility is often spoken about in the context of leadership, however it is also important in the process of teams getting in the zone, or being in flow. Steven Kotler’s flow research into extreme sports shared in his book, ”The Rise of Superman” that humility is a key ingredient for teams performing at their peak through being in a flow state.

Actionable takeaway No 4: What have you connected your value to on the outside? What is the impact of that outsourcing? What are you doing about that?

5. Making traditionally minor (but critical) roles major through meaning.

In rugby there is traditionally more prestige attached to the starting 15 players. They are often considered better and in many teams being on the bench is considered to be a lesser role that has less status, less prestige and less aspiration. What this team did was create an empowering meaning about being on the bench – the bench players called themselves “The bomb squad” and had their own rituals and identity that helped them maximise their contribution. Rassie’s belief that, “The biggest Test matches,” he said, “are won by 23 players” was likely a catalyst for the 8 bench players to find the identity and performance to match the vision.

“We do have the pack and backline players to go all the way, but in a game which is 80 minutes – if you have four minutes where you drop your standards, you will get caught out.” – Rassie Erasmus, Springbok Coach

Actionable takeaway No 5: What aspect of your work or business are you treating as minor but is actually critical? What would happen if you changed the meaning around that?

6. Holding the vision whilst adjusting tactics based on feedback

Even after the incredible vision, the planning and 18 months of hard work and all his experiences as a trophy winning coach, Rassie was able to take feedback that what the team was doing mentally and emotionally to prepare for their World Cup opening game against New Zealand (which the Springboks lost 23-13) wasn’t working.

This is another example of leadership and humility, the leadership in the group acknowledged they got it wrong, and then opened up a vulnerable conversation about how to own their errors and adjust. This leadership intervention opened up the space to reframe pressure – another key lesson.

From a perspective of happiness/purpose, we should not seek to find the ultimate “right” answer for ourselves, but rather seek to chip away at the ways which we’re wrong today so that we’re a little less wrong tomorrow.” – Mark Manson

Actionable takeaway No 6: How much feedback are you getting and from whom to ensure that your tactics are working? What would happen if you doubled the feedback you received and reviewed your tactics with the mindset that you want to find to find tactics that are a little less wrong?”

7. Reframing pressure

Reframing in this context is giving something a positive new perspective. The essence of most gratitude is reframing:

  • Can I be grateful for my family (even if they are driving me nuts at times ?!?) as I know I am blessed to have them and many people have lost one or more family member(s) which they love deeply and miss every day?
  • Can I be grateful for my job which is not going well right now, knowing that many people don’t have a job?

Dr Laurie Santos of the podcast “The Happines Lab” shares that, “We tend to measure ourselves via negative comparisons rather than in absolute terms (i.e. “I almost won gold” versus “I am a stellar athlete achieving a lifelong dream.”) This makes us unhappy. Our mind just happens to [pick] whatever reference point seems to be salient at the time, whatever reference point we happen to notice, and it tends to particularly [pick] reference points [involving people] who are doing better than us, which kind of sucks.” 

Teddy Roosevelt famously said that, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” However, that is not entirely true, comparing ourselves to others highlights real (via Social Media) can be the thief of joy. First prize is not to compare, however comparing ourselves to others is oftentimes a very ingrained habit.

If you have to compare, rather compare yourself to others who are less fortunate or to where you were 5 years ago – use whatever comparison makes you happier.

“Overall we started talking about ‘what is pressure?’ In South Africa pressure is not having a job. Pressure is one of your close relatives being murdered. In South Africa there is a lot of problems with this pressure.

We started talking about things like that. Rugby shouldn’t be something that creates pressure on you. Rugby should be something that creates hope. We started talking about how we’ve got a privilege of giving people hope – not a burden of giving people hope. But hope is not talking about hope and saying you’ve got hope and tweeting a beautiful tweet, and things like that. Hope is when you play well and people watch the game on a Saturday and have a nice braai (a BBQ) and watch the game.” – Rassie Erasmus, Springbok Coach

Rassie used these five steps to reframe pressure:

  1. Acknowledge that pressure is real and happening and open up a vulnerable conversation about what it is and the impact it is having.
  2. Shift the perspective of pressure based on bigger problems that create pressure; not having a job or losing a loved one to murder.
  3. Re-position the experience of playing for South Africa on the biggest sporting stage of all is not about pressure but is actually about creating hope.
  4. Link the idea that he and everyone involved in the team is privileged to be giving people hope, and that they should not feel burdened by it.
  5. Link creating hope to specific positive behaviours in the future; playing well so that people back home would enjoy the game whilst having a nice braai. (BBQ)

Actionable takeaway No 7: Can you use Rassie’s five steps to reframe the pressure and stress in your life? What would happen if you did that right now?

  • Tim Goodenough is a High Performance coach who works with individuals and teams to help them level up their performance. You can contact him at [email protected].