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Lessons from sporting comebacks for business startups

March 27, 2017

Comebacks are possible. In fact, they happen all the time. Yet, if you have had a setback, a comeback may seem impossible to you. Life is full of stumbles, no matter who you are. Financial problems, health issues, loss of a loved one – they may visit all of us. The challenge is how you overcome your setback. How do you dig in and hit back?

It’s the same for a startup. Circumstances and events may have conspired to force you down into a number of cul-de-sacs on product development, customers may have changed their minds and backed out of a deal, whilst recruiting new folks into your team may be proving troublesome.

Of course, we all love those great sporting comebacks when a team or individual looks down-and-out on the ropes, the scoreboard showing the game is over yet somehow they claw their way back to win with the odds stacked against them.

What are the lessons startups can take from the great sporting comebacks in terms of resilience, mental toughness and handling pressure in the moment?  Let’s look at a few of the most memorable turnarounds in sport, and then the lessons to takeaway for startup thinking.

Recently, we’ve had Barcelona pulling off the biggest Champions League comeback ever to eliminate Paris Saint-Germain. Faced with a 0-4 deficit following the first leg in Paris, Barca won the second leg 6-1, with three of the goals coming from the 88th minute onwards.

The New England Patriots became Super Bowl champions again in February by fighting back from 25 points behind to defeat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in overtime. In an extraordinary finale to the most challenging season of his career, Tom Brady inspired the Patriots and confirmed he was the best quarterback the sport has ever seen with a fifth Super Bowl crown.

Back in 1981, Australia were on the verge of going 2-0 up against England in the Test series inside four days at Headingley when Ian Botham strode to the crease. His swashbuckling innings of 149 made the Aussies bat again and Bob Willis ripped through the tourists with 8-43 to seal a remarkable 18-run win. England became just the second Test team to win after following-on.

Further back, the result Charlton 7-6 Huddersfield, in Division 2, 1957 wasn’t an end-to-end ding-dong. Ten-man Charlton trailed Huddersfield 1-5 with less than 30 minutes on the clock. And just this weekend, Exeter were 0-3 to Yeovil with two minutes to go in League Three, but scored three goals in two minutes to earn an unexpected 3-3 draw.

All memorable and some with global attention, but for me, a local rugby game is the greatest sporting comeback of all time, and helped shape my thinking on startup recovery lessons.

Local rugby clubs capture the spirit of community, everyone coming together for something they love. The effort and commitment is there to be seen at the ‘grassroots’ of the game. It’s here in the junior teams youngsters get their first taste of the great game, teaching children the core skills of rugby whilst developing valuable life skills like teamwork, sportsmanship and respect.

Rossendale RUFC are based in Rawtenstall, just up the road from the market, with a club house and pitches nestling in the scenic hillside, with stunning views looking down the valley to Manchester. On March 4 the Rossendale First XV staged a memorable fightback from a 0-28 points deficit, against Kendal, in a National League 3 North game.Bottom of FormTop of FormBottom of Form

In a classic game of two halves, Rossendale came from a seemingly irrecoverable position to earn a dramatic win, and maintain second place in the division. Curtis Strong crossed over the line in time added on to make the score 31-28 and win the match after being 26-28 down in a frenetic stoppage time.

Rossendale started slowly against their Northern counterparts, going in at half-time with a 0-21 deficit, and it seemed all hope was lost when Kendal scored their fourth try of the game shortly after the break. However, Fraser Lyndsay scored Rossendale’s first try and his first of two in the final half hour giving his side a ray of hope. Alex Isherwood, Nick Flynn and Curtis Strong added three more tries, as well as three out of five conversions from Steve Nutt, ensured victory was snatched from certain defeat.

At 0-28 down, generally speaking there’s no coming back. But the belief in the team and never say die attitude, once they scored, kick started the most remarkable sporting comeback I’ve ever seen. It was an 18-man effort with the substitutes; there was no one player who made the win, it was all of them, together.

Rugby is a physical game – the former England hooker Brian Moore once said If you can’t take a punch, you should play table tennis – but it’s not all about bashing and brawn, there’s plenty of humour and camaraderie in a rugby team – Gareth Chilcott, on retiring in his last England game said I’m off for a quiet pint now, followed by 17 noisy ones! Just half a session then Gareth?

Comeback stories like this are inspiring and cause us to believe there is hope for our own comeback in the face of adversity. For me, the passion, team spirit, togetherness and winning mindsets in rugby rise above anything I’ve ever done and taught me more about teamwork, effort, humanity, drinking and tomfoolery than anything else I’ve experienced. If you meet someone else who’s played rugby, you’ll probably like them and get on with them. Like Frank Menduca from Adelaide.

I went to the World Cup 2007 tournament in France with my son James, the highlight being England 23 Australia 17 in the Quarter-Final in Marseille. Memories of raw French steak, ham & cheese toasties and fine Belgian lager for breakfast, Welsh fans with ‘Fiji’ taped over ‘Wales’ on their shirts supporting Fiji in the Quarter Final versus South Africa. And an encounter with Frank Menduca, an Aussie bear.

Resting for a beer after the game with our group amongst a noisy throng of England fans on one of the many street bars, a posse of Aussies hulked around the corner. Cue Waltzing Matilda from the England fans. Jubilation versus despondency. One of the Aussies, the leader of their pack and a huge man mountain caught my eye and pointed a finger at me. You’re for it now dad! said James, moving slowly so as to hide behind me like Simba behind Mufasa!

The Aussie man-mountain came up to me, at least six inches taller than me, something I’m not used to. He stared intently into my face. Then let out a wail and a cry We lost, I need a hug! and embraced me as a long lost relative. Mayhem broke out again, as around twenty grown up men embraced each other. Man love. You had to be there.

About three hours, ten pints, a giant hot dog eating competition (individual and relay – well done James, second place behind Frank’s son) and a raucous singing competition later, we parted. Ten yards down the road, the Englishmen broke into the apocryphal Rolf Harris anthem. Tie me Kangaroo down sport.

But back to comebacks, and Rossendale’s recent victory 31-28 from a 0-28 deficit. How did they find the physical resolve, the mental tenacity, the resilience to recover from a scoreboard of defeat to one illuminating victory, and how can we take this lessons into our startup thinking?

Hold a clear vision The Rossendale team has a clear purpose – to win the National League 3 North, which sets the direction for each game. Winning and losing in sport is very clear cut, but when you’re down in a game, the vision has to be clear enough that the team can pursue it as a focus to clear the mind.

Composure Nothing gives you more advantage over in the heat of the moment as to remain composed, focused and unruffled. Composure is the product of an ambitious mentality envisioning the outcome we would aspire for – what do I need to do? It requires persistence, vision, self-belief and patience.

Get a new plan You’re way off your original plan, so you need to reframe with agile thinking, developing a revised plan to accomplish your goals as the situation changes. An agile plan doesn’t require detailed steps, rather it guides our actions to ensure we are progressing forward. It wasn’t raining when Noah started building the ark.

Don’t doubt yourself Our mettle is tested as pressure-filled situations create doubt. Having doubt is a natural reaction, which we all experience. But being composed and having a plan we believe in is what helps us to endure and overcome. Dare to believe you can be the best.

It’s never over until it’s over Even when the position was seemingly hopeless at 0-28, and 26-28 in injury time, Rossendale believed. They didn’t give up. The moment you accepts defeat, it’s over. For another example of this – watch the you tube video of British athlete Christine Ohuruogu beating Amantle Monsho in the 2013 World Championships 400m final. With 100m left she was 10m adrift, with 10m left she was still behind, but on the line she caught her competitor and won gold.

Face reality You have to stand still, take in the moment and acknowledge that things aren’t working as intended and made changes. As Einstein said one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Difficult as they can be, changes are sometimes necessary. The cumulative impact of several small improvements is usually greater than finding one big change – because often there isn’t a big thing to find.

Focus on yourself When the chips are down and the team needs to produce peak performance levels, it has to be automatic. Top sportspeople always report that the victory was earned through training and practice. When things are tough it’s tempting to focus on what the competition are doing to be ahead but instead it’s important to focus on yourself. Compete with others but focus on you.

Leadership The role of leadership in a crisis is to be the catalyst. Ground everyone emotionally, get heads cleared, and look everyone in the eye. Then go for it. Once the spark has been fired, everyone needs to join the movement so that the fire spreads and takes hold. There’s a point at which a critical mass is reached and the team as a whole mobilises. The power of the doubting Thomases is replaced by the power of believers that it can be done.

Play on the complacency of the opposition There’s something else worth remembering. Teams lose when they think they’re already won. When Manchester United won the European Champions League in 1999, scoring twice in the final two minutes to turn around a 1-0 deficit, the Bayern Munich players were already celebrating. When Christine Ohuruogu won her gold medal, Amantle Montsho thought she had won and eased up on the line. Complacency often kills victory.

So Rossendale’s First XV bounced back from likely defeat to an unlikely victory. For a startup, there are many lessons from this remarkable turnaround as outlined above. Hardship prepares ordinary people for an extraordinary effort. Standing over the precipice, the first step to getting somewhere different is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are. Live in the solution, not the problem.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Simon permalink
    March 30, 2017 7:49 am

    A great read Ian

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