Legs, hearts & minds: lessons for startups from sporting comebacks

Comebacks are possible. In fact, they happen all the time, but if you have had a major setback, it may seem dauntingly impossible. Life is full of stumbles, no matter who you are – financial problems, health issues, a relationship breakdown – they hit us all. The challenge is how you overcome a 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 into a number of cul-de-sacs on product development, customers may have backed out of a deal, cashflow could be spiralling downwards, 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. And what a week we’ve had for this!

Spurs and Liverpool, both at some point 0-3 down on aggregate in their second leg Champions League matches, came back to win. The results weren’t tactical, they were just pure heart, it was just giving it everything to try and get to a Champions League final, and both achieved that with winning goals in the 79th and 96th minutes.

It was nothing short of extraordinary. Amid all the euphoria, with its capacity to surprise and conjure up barely conceivable storylines, sometimes football can be thrown back to the basics – legs – the physicality – hearts and minds – the winning mentality. ‘Legs, hearts and minds’ is the team motto of my club, Burnley FC, and it resonates with the passion on and off the pitch.

Beside the Liverpool and Spurs games in the last week, what’s your favourite sporting comeback? Many will cite the cricket in 1981, when Australia were on the verge of going 2-0 up against England in the Test series inside four days at Headingley. Then 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 team to win a Test after following-on.

Memorable and with global attention, but for me, a local rugby game is the greatest sporting comeback of all time I’ve witnessed, and helped shape my thinking on startup recovery lessons.

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, 2017 the Rossendale First XV staged a memorable fightback from a 0-28 points deficit against Kendal, to win a National League 3 North game.

Rossendale came from a seemingly irrecoverable position to earn a dramatic win. Curtis Strong crossed over the line in time added on to make the final score 31-28 and win the match after being 26-28 down in a frenetic stoppage time.

Rossendale started slowly to say the least, 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.

Comeback stories like this, and last week’s barnstorming performances from Liverpool and Spurs, are inspiring and cause us to believe there is hope for our own situation in the face of adversity. There are some impressive business comebacks in the past twenty years to take inspiration from too.

Look no further than Apple, which foundered in the late 1990s before Steve Jobs resurrected it to become the most valuable company in the world. In my estimation, Apple’s triumph is the number one business comeback of the last two decades.

Marvel, founded in 1939, is another great bounce-back story. As the home of Spider Man, Captain America, and other iconic characters, Marvel had long been the comic-book world’s biggest player. But in the mid-1990s the comics market crashed, Marvel went broke, and there was no superhero to stave off bankruptcy.

But after restructuring to focus on movies rather than paper and ink, today, Iron Man, the Avengers and X-Men are all billion-dollar franchises, and the company’s master plan to connect many of its characters in a single cinematic universe has turned it into one of pop culture’s most powerful brands.

Entrepreneurs choose the life of challenge and hardship, gambling for achievement, but also inevitably encountering times marked by confusion, chaos and disappointment seen by Apple. The entrepreneur consciously chooses a life in which they are likely to have higher highs and lower lows, in which the peaks and troughs are more vivid than if safer choices made.

Entrepreneurs jump on the roller coaster ride where the tracks haven’t yet been fully built. They’d have it no other way, happy going round blind corners and crazy inclines. A good part of it is fighting the urge to revert back to their comfort zone. Having to pick themselves up from setbacks, dust themselves off and go again, is an accepted part of the journey.

Ryan Holiday, in his book The Obstacle Is The Way, drawing lessons from philosophy and history, shows how to be prepared for knockbacks and be bold and mentally able to handle the pressure of running a startup. Here are some quotes from his book, which I think say a lot about building your mindset to make those stunning comebacks.

Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective. When something happens, you decide what it means. Is it the end? Or the time for a new start? Is it the worst thing that has ever happened to you? Or is it just a setback? You have the decision to choose how you perceive every situation in life.

I can’t afford to panic. Some things make us emotional, but you have to practice to keep your emotions in check and balanced. In every situation, no matter how bad it is, keep calm and try to find a solution. Sometimes the best solution is walking away. Entrepreneurs find it hard to say no, but that can be the best solution at times.

No one is asking you to look at the world through rose-coloured glasses.
See the world for what it is. Not what you want it to be or what it should be. Hey, we’re back to being realistic – but it’s also about optimism, the mindset to expect the best outcome from every situation – and that’s resilience to make it happen. This gives entrepreneurs the capacity to pivot from a failing tactic, and implement actions to increase comeback success.

If you want momentum, you’ll have to create it yourself by getting up and getting started. If you want anything from life, you have to start moving towards it. Only action will bring you closer. Start now, not tomorrow. Maintain active optimism, observing how others were successful in similar situations, and believing you can do the same. Equally, it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.

It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. Entrepreneurial life is competitive. When you think life is hard know that it’s supposed to be hard. If you get discouraged, try another angle until you succeed. Every attempt brings you one step closer. Don’t have a victim’s mindset. Learn that tenacity is self-sustaining. Great entrepreneurs become tenaciously defiant when told they cannot succeed. Then they get it done.

We must be willing to roll the dice and lose. Be prepared for none of it to work. We get disappointed too quickly. The main cause? We often expect things will turn out fine, we have too high expectations. No one can guarantee your success so why not expect to lose? You try with all your effort, it doesn’t work out, you accept it, and move on. Understand that any decision is usually better than no decision.

The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher. Don’t shy away from difficulty. Nurture yourself: gain strength from the unrealistic achievements of others. Surround yourself with high achievers. Avoid toxic people like the plague. To be remarkable, you have to expect unreasonable things of yourself.

Manager Jürgen Klopp puts the incredible Liverpool comeback down to ‘mentality of giants’, waves of red fury and reckless effort ending in joyous bedlam, an effort of will that, frankly, took the breath away. On a rapturous night Liverpool’s chasing narrowed the deficit, then burst into the most extravagant life as a 1-0 half-time lead against Barcelona became two, then three, then four.

In a startup, when you overcome one obstacle, another one waits in the shadows. Entrepreneurial life is a process of overcoming obstacles, one after the other. The obstacle becomes the way so you might as well enjoy it. For startups, there are many comeback lessons from the remarkable sporting and business turnarounds 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, and go all in.

I liken it to pushing yourself to the ‘tremor of truth’ moment of giving your maximum in physical exercise when you push yourself to the edge. You grimace as a tremor of unease shoots through your body. Your arm muscles quiver during push-ups; your legs tremble with exhaustion running those yards.

Your brain says you can’t do it. But you get a second wind, persevere, and discover unknown mental and physical reserves. And just before giving up, you push through the challenge. ‘Tremor of truth’ builds muscles on the physical plane and a growth mindset on the psychological plane.

So look at the memorable turnarounds in sport last week in terms of resilience, mental toughness, self-belief and handling pressure in the moment. The path to entrepreneurial success is forged via breakthroughs, small steps and iterations, each possible because you have your eyes and ears wide open and you’re able to reflect and adjust time after time, with the resilient mindset to keep going.

Resilience is the virtue that enables entrepreneurs to move through hardship, set backs and achieve success. No one escapes heartache, uncertainty and disappointment, yet from these setbacks comes wisdom, if we have the virtue of resilience.

Many misunderstand what’s at work in comebacks. For me, it’s not about ‘bouncing back’, rather its about the ability to integrate harsh experiences into your entrepreneurial thinking, learn and apply the lessons, and then be motivated to go again, and expecting to go one better. The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back stronger, legs, hearts and minds. That’s the essence of it.

Read this…