Instilling Purpose.

Growing up in London, football, or soccer, as my US brethren like to call it, was the main sport that we all played and everyone else fiercely supported.

I moved into rugby when I became a more vertically challenged but laterally gifted (fat) individual and I still love the game but even so, I’ve only ever followed Internationals.

I watch F1 and cycling, nearly always recorded (praise the Sky gods) so that I can scan through or pause to go and um pee, or flick over to something more exciting… clearly a diehard fan. Even when the skiing is on… just kidding… skiing is never on.

So yeah, I loosely follow a few sports and tune in to the Olympics etc. but I never have and still don’t reeeally watch sport for the love of sport. I do however love watching sport for, I know this is incredibly sad, the learning potential. For the human element.

What fascinates me about sport are the invisible forces. Forces such as momentum, passion purpose etc. What turns a 3-0 first half domination into a 3-4 last minute crushing Champions League defeat? Or a 6-0 6-2 tennis grand-slam into an epic 5 setter? Or a 4 over par first 9 into a 3 under par Masters winning round? What makes the All Blacks so relentlessly powerful, year on year?

This is why I watch sport.

I can’t help but feel that if I can master a way of training these abilities within a person, a team, or an organisation, there’s very little that they won’t be able to achieve, or at the very least, come back from.

This a big and complex topic and not one I’m going to do be able to do justice to in a single piece but here are a few thoughts on how individual sports might be able to teach us about instilling purpose and a sense of responsibility in ourselves and others.

Let’s start with the All Blacks. New Zealand’s famous rugby union team.

Why are they so, damn, good?

With legends such as Jonah Lomu and Richie McCaw being said to sweep the dressing room floor after games with the aim of training humility, a “no d****head”, no one is bigger than the shirt style selection policy and some of the best athlete development and coaching infrastructure around, it’s perhaps not so surprising that they’ve won an outrageous 75% of their matches.

The All Blacks train-in and demand purpose, pride, culture and history from their athletes. On the simplest level, how could a nation whose young people grow up collectively performing the Haka, not be better prepared to play for a purpose greater than themselves, than just about anyone else on the planet?

Yeah, that’s what I thought too.

I don’t find it surprising that the All Blacks are so successful. What I do find fascinating though, is just how few teams manage to find their own version of this success.

The way I would best summarise the All Blacks success…

… they play with the weight of an individual.

This is one of those invisible forces.

Unlike most teams, the All Blacks have 15 individuals on that field united by one common goal. 15 inspired, hungry, purpose driven potential winners. No one hides.

This is what individual athletes, CEOs, and leaders in any field have to master better than anyone else. They are the only people responsible for their success and often the success of many others who rely upon them.

How many times, per game, do you see footballers foul, dive, lose their cool, or talk back at the referee? I see it most games.

In my opinion, these are selfish actions. They come about because there’s not enough emphasis on the importance of your role. Not enough understanding of how these acts poison the collective mind of a team. Fundamentally, not enough accountability.

When Mark Cavendish and a few other Team Sky pro cyclists arrived late for training one morning in Spain, David Brailsford made them wash every single vehicle in the car park before their ride. Funnily enough, they weren’t late again.

Collective purpose, collective discipline.

In comparison to the team sports, how many times do you see a golfer, or tennis player lose their composure? It happens, of course, but it’s a pretty stark contrast.

I have over-simplified this discussion of course but, in my opinion, the pattern and the lesson stand true.

When you are solely responsible for the outcome, there is a much greater cost to losing emotional control. There’s no team to hide behind, no one to save your mistakes, no substitutions that permit you a ‘bad day’, and no one there to help you raise your level if you have a slow start. It is the stark reality that your results, your sponsorships, your career, your selection, and therefore most things in your life, are completely reliant on your own performance.

This is what I call the ’weight of an individual’

Last year I found myself in a think-tank style meeting in the Shard with some very serious CEOs, financial elites, industry leaders… aaand me… run by a sport psychologist called Simon Hartley. He coached Chris Cook, a double Olympian and Commonwealth Champion swimmer and I’ll share with you a very powerful lesson from that day.

They came up with a very simple measure of daily success. They decided that before making any decision, they would ask themselves one question, in line with their goal.

The question: Will this make me faster?

The goal: To swim 2 lengths of the pool as fast as possible.

There was no wiggle room on this. If a sponsorship deal offered £100,000 but in testing the new sponsors swim cap was 0.2 seconds slower, the answer was simple, no. It went against the goal.

Do we train ourselves to think like this?

Do we remind regularly ourselves of the broader perspective and our goals before we go into anything?

Do you reckon the majority of footballers think, “will this help my team win?” before storming up to the ref in a rage?

When you’re trying to lose weight, before every meal, do you ask yourself, “will this help me lose weight?”

I’d hedge a bet that those All Blacks live their lives this way. I suspect that they imbue themselves with their purpose and under the guidance of some of the sharpest rugby minds in the world, they live to be unbeatable, untouchable even, and as a result, succeed in leaving the toilet a little bit cleaner than when they found it for those who come after them.

For us mere mortals then, instilling purpose has to begin with a goal, or if you’re part of a team, a well understood, collective goal.

The responsibility of realising our goal, even if we aren’t always enjoying the process, gives us purpose and there’s beauty in that.

If you feel a little lost, like everyone has done at points, try making a decision in line with a passion and remember, as Winnie-the-Pooh wisely stated…

I always get to where I’m going, by walking away from where I’ve been.

Winnie-the-Pooh
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