As a society, do we undervalue the experience of losing? We take a deep dive into the positives rugby stars can salvage from defeat
The Art of Losing In Rugby
We all know that feeling in the pit of your stomach – the misery of realised dread – when the final result betrays you. For the competitive spirit, it’s hell.
And yet, in a world where only one real winner’s medal is handed out each season in each competition, the minor and major losses can queue up. Indeed, throughout a career, every elite athlete can catalogue all manner of defeat.
It does not magically become a sanguine sensation because of familiarity, though. Maybe there is an art to losing? Not in perfecting the blunder but in harnessing the lessons available once the loss has wrung you out. Take a step further and those who are no stranger to a setback may offer an awful lot more than you would first suspect.
Understanding the process
“The term ‘failure’ leads us into a bit of a binary world of black or white; you succeed or you fail and you miss the nuance,” says Damian Hughes, who has specialised in organisational development within elite sport and who has worked extensively with the Scotland national team. “Maybe we should be somewhere in the middle. That term ‘failure’, there’s no subtlety to it. It sounds like a bit of an American motivational speaker phrase, but there’s some credibility in the idea that failure should be viewed as feedback.”
Hughes laughs that you fall into the reality TV speak of X Factor when you talk about going on a journey, but he believes that creating a successful environment means having the room to change behaviours based on your experiences.
He gives the example from his time in rugby league, with England at the 2008 World Cup in Australia. Having lost in the semi-finals, the coaching group discovered how ruthless they needed to be, which selections could work best, the time demands needed for big competitions. But with a subsequent coaching shake-up, all that knowledge “went out the building”.
Hughes explains that any journey to the top has five stages.
The first is the ‘dream’ stage, where a new boss comes in, there’s a big press conference and rhetoric flies about your thrilling future. Stage two is the ‘leap’ stage. This is where you ask people to change how they do things. It is at this point teams often get the early bounce with a new coach in charge, it is explained.
Then comes the ‘fight’ stage. This, Hughes says, is where issues come in for the first time in the regime. Losses. Disagreements. Player disillusionment. Fan unrest. Board pressure.
Hughes says that more often than not in sport, this is when the coach is sacked and we all tootle off back to phase one. Teams can spend decades just cycling through the first three stages, he adds.
Hughes goes on: “However, if you view it as feedback, some of those things at the ‘fight’ stage might be cultural, as part of the club and problems any coaches are going to face, so getting through that means you get to the ‘progress’ stage.
“When you get through the difficult bits and start to see the seeds of change, that’s going to move you forwards. And then the last stage is you get to the ‘arrival’ stage where you do start to record successes. And then the idea is you go through a regeneration, where you start the process again.
“The frustrating thing is if we only view failure as terminal. When somebody starts to fail in that fight stage – and they will hit it – that’s when you sack them and bring somebody in to excite you again. Nobody ever learns from that.”
The interesting paradox at the heart of this cycle could be that you want athletes who are fired up and passionate, willing to fight for what they care about, but they may need to be won over when times are tough. Hughes cautions that coaches should be judicious when they approach an athlete to discuss failures but the prime example he can find is when you ask boxers if they have a plan should they hit the canvas.
Those who have contemplated failure may handle it better, he suggests. They may stay down for longer in the count, catch their breath, take a beat to assess. He follows up that some believe a mistake is only a mistake if you repeat it.
Wasps head coach Lee Blackett was relegated from the Premiership as a player for both Rotherham and Leeds. By his own admission his first experience was not so stinging. He was pleased to prove he could cut it at that level, following his rise through the ranks.
However, after years of yo-yoing, his last of three relegations with Leeds, in 2011, was crushing.
He explains: “I knew at the time where Leeds were and they were not so likely to bounce back the following year. We were (tenth) in the Premiership the year before and we wanted to try to get into the top six and we ended up getting relegated. There were a lot of very, very close friends of mine who were going to leave as a result of that. There were about eight of us on two-year deals and we were the only ones who really stayed.
“You put everything into a season and we went down on points difference. It was pretty gut-wrenching… Still is to be honest.”
After six seasons with the club, something special was coming to an end. What made it so rough was that they finished on the exact same points as Newcastle. Leeds have not been in the top flight since.
How have those experiences shaped Blackett as a coach?
“I would say detail,” he replies. “Games are so close. When you’re at that position in the bottom and you have to fight and scrap, every tiny little thing (helps).
“We were potentially the worst team in the league. We knew we had to scrap and we had to fight and dig. We had to do anything to try and find that win. And it was special every time we did get that win.
“When I was first asked by the club (Wasps) to talk about this, my first instinct was ‘Ugh, I don’t know if I can do that interview’. But then I started thinking a little bit more and it’s actually a pretty simple conversation to have. Because you are used to scrapping and fighting to find a way to get across the line, then the little details are massive because we just have to be the best at the unseen, talentless stuff. So when you become a coach you naturally take that over.
“In that season with Leeds, we kicked ridiculously well, we chased hard, we were competitive and we rocked up every single week. As a coach that’s what you ask for as a minimum. Obviously at Wasps we’ve got a more talented squad, but still those foundation levels are what you’re looking for. Then we go from there.
“It’s the tiny little details like what line we run in attack, or if it’s two men hitting the ruck, who’s doing what role. Because that detail is the difference between winning and losing.”
One of the other things that is key for Blackett is taking a positive approach to improvement. He believes that there is enormous pressure on players weekly, from media and fan attention to strivng to make your family proud and stressing over contracts and career trajectory. So game week has to be enjoyable.
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That does not mean there’s no critique and these are elite athletes, expected to deliver on the biggest stage. However, more often than not, if there is a game-swinging error, the player knows what they did wrong. Blackett is an incredibly competitive person too, he admits. Therefore how Wasps’ coaches deliver messages is something they think about deeply.
When things are positive and there is the right team environment, Blackett adds, team-mates rally to help individuals bounce back. It’s something that can only help the collective.
A second chance
A period of tying together errors is no indicator of irredeemable rot, either. There is another example from Leeds which proves just this.
In 2002 Leeds – then the Tykes – finished rock bottom of the Premiership. But they were not relegated as Rotherham, who topped the division below, didn’t have the requisite facilities for England’s top flight. The very next season Leeds finished fifth; they went from 12th to a Heineken Cup place.
“We really had nothing to lose,” explains Dan Scarbrough, who played full-back both seasons. “The first year everyone was getting used to (the Premiership) and we had a good crack at it, but sadly we didn’t quite make it. But we’d stayed up by default. We felt like we deserved to stay up.
“We were given that sort of grace period of another year and it left us as underdogs.
“That first game of the season we beat Leicester (26-13). And being the underdogs probably puts you in a position where you are willing to take more risks and be willing to have a go. If it didn’t work out then people would expect it and if we did stay up, fantastic.”
Damian Hughes believes that the 2002-03 Leeds Tykes outfit perfectly demonstrates the effect of using failure as feedback. Going on to what changed the following year, Scarbrough adds: “We’d been there, we’d tried it and we’d failed, so clearly there was more focus on ‘how do we keep going for the whole season rather than BANG and just fizzle out?’
“There was probably more rotation in positions where we could rotate. Training did change. Training was still incredibly hard, but we did learn lessons. Like how to win a game. People talk about how games are won and lost in the last ten minutes and that was a big focus as well.
“We were probably quite an inexperienced group. In that second year, Braam van Straaten probably gave us an edge we didn’t have before by slotting over 60m winners. We had a slightly different game plan we could look at.
“I remember asking him after one win about how he kept his focus and he just said, ‘I know I won’t miss. That’s my 16th game I’ve had 16 match-winning kicks and I’ve hit them all.’ In his mind he couldn’t miss.
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“We had a mix of lads who were gonna get the head down and crack on. We had a lot of team players who would put their body on the line, they’d been flogged for years by Phil Davies and they would do anything for the club. And then you bring in that little bit of experience.
“We went against good teams and knew we could beat them. And that was more so in the second year, it wasn’t so much of a surprise.”
Getting more cracks at Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Robinson could only help. If handled the right way, then opportunities to keep climbing back on the horse may help. Look at Shota Horie.
Alongside skipper Michael Leitch, the Japan hooker was part of the 2011 Rugby World Cup squad that lost every game. In the build-up to the 2015 World Cup, he went and plied his trade in a tougher field, leaving Japan to play NPC with Otago before joining the Melbourne Rebels in Super Rugby.
In 2015 he helped the Brave Blossoms shock the world, beating South Africa 34-32. And although Japan missed out on getting beyond the pool stages for the first time ever, at the next World Cup Horie played a starring role as Japan created history to make the knockouts.
What a loser, eh?
Scarbrough, who works at Bradford Grammar now, believes learning what setbacks are, early, can help developing athletes. It is a sentiment shared by Jamie Taylor, who was an academy head coach at Leicester Tigers and now works as a senior performance pathway scientist for the English Institute of Sport.
In our special report Too Much, Too Soon, he explained of recent findings that “what is widespread is those who have it too easy falling away” and that it’s a disaster if any kids cruise through school as a rugby rockstar, because the first loss, first shock in training or first proper hurdle could blow their world apart.
The value of experience
What may be ignored here though, is the value of those who have known losses through several stages of their careers. Because they cannot be defined by purely that aspect of their working history.
Italy hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini won less than 20% of his Test matches, losing 84 of 104. And yet he has enjoyed a long and varied career in Italy, England and France. As he explains to Rugby World of his mindset: “I always want to win, in every game, in every workout, in every training session. But if you are good at understanding how and why you made a mistake, you come out much stronger from the difficult times.
“Every day I work to become a better athlete in all aspects but the tough moments can be a spring that makes you grow even more. The winning attitude is very important.”
Then there is Tom May, who lost 141 Premiership matches between 1999 and 2015 but has enjoyed an exciting career that flew from Newcastle to Toulon, to Northampton and lastly London Welsh.
Asked if he thinks the greater sporting world undervalues the experience of tough times, he responds: “Yes, because the immediate reaction is probably the reaction you got from me initially – everyone plays the sport to win. So when you do lose you ultimately look at that as a failure. Actually when you step back from that or when you become a bit older and a bit more experienced, you understand a lot more about what you’re learning.”
Look further down the list of Premiership players with a lot of losses and some names jump out. Phil Dowson has 124 losses. He is now an assistant coach at Northampton Saints. Stuart Hooper has 117, he is the director of rugby at Bath. Micky Ward has 112 losses and he’s the forwards coach at Falcons.
Talking about these former players, May goes on: “There are so many examples of what these guys can offer players from what they’ve experienced. Because everyone experiences the highs of winning at some point, and in some fashion. But do that many people experience the tough times that really steel you for not only life as a professional sportsman, but also for what comes when you leave the game?
“The lessons I learnt from Newcastle made me the player that I was. We flirted with relegation a couple of times. At the time we were pretty young so we didn’t really think too much about the negative side. And there was a negative side clearly.
“But Philippe Saint-Andre tried to sign me for Sale before going to Toulon. So I guess he spotted something and if you look at people that he signed when we went to Toulon, it was a load of people that just grafted. Yeah, there were some big names like Sonny Bill Williams but the guys that he took, he knew that they had a good training ethic.
“When things don’t come easy as a professional sportsman you have to evolve. You either just chuck hands up in the air and go, ‘We lost, we can’t do anything about it,’ or you knuckle down and you find a way to solve it.
“That’s made me much more of a solutions person as opposed to someone that says ‘Oh, I can’t deal with it.’ I’m trying that now. I’m much more of a person that will say yes to something and then find a way to do it.”
When taking over a new gig, Hughes recommends coaches conduct a ‘pre-mortem’, where you identify as many of the possible horrible moments that could lie ahead, so you and the board are ready for fight time.
Yet for many of the veteran players, it was a case of adapting on the hoof and reflecting later in life. What is best practice today could well nestle in the vast grey areas.
For the rest of us, it’s about appreciating that there can be intrinsic value in playing through those horrible defeats. Because the moments to savour are so hard earned.
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