Rugby Lessons (vol 1)

It’s no surprise that many of my peers have gone on from elite level rugby to top level business. The lessons learnt on the field (and off it), have huge crossover appeal. I wasn’t the best of my crop but I certainly occupied high branches, facilitating a career that took me all over the globe playing the game I loved. Here are a few adages that stuck with me…

Control the controllables (Dave Hatfield)

During my time in New Zealand I was played for the Tasman Mako. A brand-new team in the National Provincial Championship made up of a few rag tag imports, (including yours truly) and cast-off union players. We weren’t given much hope and forecast to run bottom of the competition.

Fortunately, New Zealand knows rugby and they wanted to ensure the fledgling union set firm foundations. My two years as ‘Mako number 4’ gave a real insight to the methods of the greatest rugby nation and NZRU mental skills trainer Dave Hatfield. He was closely associated with the team during our inaugural seasons and gave a huge amount for the team; one maxim that really stuck in my head was ‘controlling the controllables’

We had no say on the weather, the bounce of the ball many other aspects of a game yet often they could hamper performance. He cited an example of bemoaning a wet cold day, there would be nothing that could be done about that, but often players would get a downer and positively hamper the overall chances of success before a ball was touched

Success would be much more likely if we gave ourselves the freedom not to worry about elements beyond our control, but instead to ensure what we could affect – we did our best. Lifestyle and nutrition, video analysis, plenty of rest, maximising all training sessions all came into the equation.

Needless to say, 8 years on from their foundation the Mako won the National Provincial Championship and I’ve no doubt the seeds planted back at the inception had a strong bearing on this! Get the controllables right and you’ll be halfway there.

No talent battle (Rob Baxter)

After finishing second three times in four seasons the Exeter Chiefs (including me), managed to win promotion to the Premiership. With minimal recruitment, not many expected the team to make ripples at the elite tier and we fast became odds on favourite to get relegated. As the history books show, this couldn’t have been further from the truth.

As a team we discussed the fact we would be playing against famous players who had competed at a higher level and were, on paper at least, better than us. The oft used quote ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard’ was bandied about a lot and we took time to explore the meaning behind it.

We broke down aspects in a game that didn’t need talent but helped success; It didn’t take talent to chase a kick, to get up off the floor or to work maximally if the ball was close to you yet many players didn’t do it. We all agreed to ensure we would never be beaten for effort. If a team was better than us we could shoulder it but if we were outworked there was a problem.

It soon became apparent that the Chiefs would lay down the gauntlet every game and that if their work wasn’t matched they would win… Surprisingly enough this policy meant we won eight games and comfortably stayed in the league – the no talent battle became a KPI from that moment!

Handle change

Many struggle with change (try it now, fold your arms as you normally do, now swap them over… that’s change). It is peculiar and can often be uncomfortable, but it is undeniably a part of life that need not be a challenge.

If you’ve seen the Shawshank redemption you may remember the character Brooks. He was the elderly guy who, after a lifetimes incarceration, was released into the big wide world. He got himself a house and job and seemed to be fitting in but, in no time, the conditioning of a life in the ‘big house’ got to him. His failure to embrace what was a positive change did for him!

As a professional sportsman I could empathise with the fictional character as I too had been institutionalised; Not into prison life but as a rugby player. Diet diaries, kit lists dictating what to wear and a daily timetable had been the norm for 13 thirteen years, ingrained into my psyche. Fortunately, I began preparing for the change mentally well in advance of its arrival.

Preparation for change is certainly a key tool and the first maxim to adopt. If you know a change is coming or one may happen, explore the consequences, take the mindset of a chess player; study all possible moves and results that may come. If you have rehearsed and visited the upheaval it will be a lot easier to deal with.

Know yourself (Paul Tisdale)

Over 2,400 years ago Chinese philosopher Lau Tzu once said “He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened” this wisdom still rings true today. It is important to have a grasp on your team and to ensure you understand what motivates and drives them, but it’s vital to have a grasp on your own volitions first.

Knowing what makes you really tick will allow the opportunity to optimise your output and appreciate your relationship to the team. Whereas Lau Tzu dedicated his life to the process and went on to found a religious philosophy (Taoism since you’re asking), some time spent on introspection and self-analysis should be part of a regular monthly (if not weekly) calendar.

In the rugby fraternity there is always a decent portion of worktime spent analysing one’s strengths and weaknesses (we always used the term ‘work on’).  A simple practice was to analyse how you see yourself and get colleagues to analyse you too, its often a surprise that one’s Steve Jobs self-image isn’t mirrored!

The realisation from this maxim didn’t come from rugby but from the local football team and their inspirational manager Paul Tisdale. On a limited budget and with a gargantuan rugby team on his doorstep, Tis has fought a fantastic battle with Exeter City longer than any other manager in the football leagues (Arsene Wegner aside). He spoke at an event about knowing his players and them knowing themselves so succinctly that a penny dropped about my own self-awareness through the years!

A couple of handy websites to gain an appreciation




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Chris Bentley

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