Lessons for startups from the rugby world cup: the self-belief of Owen Farrell

On my only visit to Japan, I visited the onsen, the Japanese hot springs that are a cherished tradition on island of Kyushu. They are an intimidating prospect for the first time bather. There are many cultural traditions to uphold: tattoos are a big no-no, washing yourself is frowned upon, no towels, and wearing swimming trunks will offend.

In the onsen, you go naked, or you go home. I found this the most difficult custom to uphold, being largely unaccustomed to sitting around stark naked amidst other people with more confidence than me with their full nakedness on display.

And so ultimately, there are two ways of approaching the experience. You can negotiate it with a tentative squeamishness, a hyper-awareness of one’s own bashfulness. Or you can simply march out of the changing rooms, whip off your towel and slide impeccably into the steaming pool, a spring in your step and keep your eyes looking straight ahead.

So I was delighted that my own bravado in Kyushu all those years ago was matched by England on Saturday at the Oita Stadium. In the heart of Kyushu’s onsen territory, England stripped down and confidently squared up to Australia. It was a humid afternoon with the roof closed, the noise amplified, and a frantic 80-minute mêlée ensued.

England are into the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in twelve years as they ruthlessly dispatched their old rivals 40-16. A one-sided outcome, however, did not always look on the cards. Australia came out fast and battered away at the England defence, forcing thirty tackles in the first three minutes.

Australia looked the brighter side initially, taking an early lead. England took a while to make any kind of impression, before two first-half tries inside four minutes from Johnny May banished jangling nerves. As well as enjoying 60% of first-half possession, the Wallabies were doing a good job of not allowing England to settle and the first score after the break felt important from both sides’ perspective.

Australia got it. Starting from their own line and with slick use of the turnover ball, Marika Koroibete had the space to burn off the chasing English backs and brought the Wallabies to within a point. In response, prop Kyle Sinckler smashed through from Owen Farrell’s flat pass and England regained control.

Anthony Watson applied the coup de grace with a late interception try, but the final margin did not entirely reflect an eventful game in which the Wallabies counterattacking excellence made life uncomfortable for England at times. Only in the final twenty minutes did England establish forward control, and put daylight between the teams.

Owen Farrell’s 100% contribution from the kicking tee – twenty points from four conversions and four penalties made a huge difference, but on a day when England rattled up 40 points and equalled their heaviest ever win over Australia, the victory was built not on shimmering attacking flair but indomitable defence.

The statistics spoke for themselves: Australia had 64% possession, 62% of the territory, carried for twice as many metres, won more than twice as many rucks. England withstood almost everything flung at them, waited for the errors, and then took advantage.

There was a scream from Farrell as the full-time hooter sounded. Then, after commiserating with the beaten Australians, he gathered his team in a huddle. Arms around each other, breathless but satisfied, they listened in. It was a great performance, Farrell told them. Forty points. It’s coming again next week, and it’s got to be even better. There’s still loads for us to work on.

And as the huddle dissolved, it felt like a fitting motif for this England side with Farrell, a leader with belief in himself and his team. And really, when the heat is on and there are two ways of approaching it. Recall the onsen? You can wilt in the shadows, fearing the worst, doubting yourself. Or you can kick off your inhibitions, bare your soul to the world and step boldly into the bubbling cauldron. Farrell did this in full on Saturday.

Farrell comes from an incredible Wigan rugby family. His father is Andy Farrell, who played both rugby league and rugby union for England, his uncle is Keiron O’Loughlin and grandfather Sean O’Loughlin, both rugby league giants. Hailing from the heartland of rugby league, Farrell has played since the age of eight, starting off with Wigan St Patricks.

Farrell has played for England since 2012, and captain since 2018. He is considered by many to be one of the best current rugby union players in the world, having been nominated for World Rugby Player of the Year in 2012, 2016 and 2017. Farrell has scored more points than any other England player bar Jonny Wilkinson and his scoring celebration has become a common sight – there is always something bigger in his mind whenever he lands a kick for England.

Farrell links his hands in a ‘celebration’ that reaches out to a cause close to his heart. The ‘Jack salute’ involves linking the two forefingers in the shape of the initials ‘JJ’ and has been seen every time Farrell has scored points since 2014. Jack Johnson, now 11, was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a terminal muscle-wasting disease, in October 2011. Jack’s father played rugby league with Farrell’s own father at Wigan.

We saw the celebration eight times on Saturday, Farrell was outstanding from the outset, under a ferocious Wallaby assault, landing twenty points from his immaculate kicking, as they were tested to the limit. His first curling over a testing penalty from out wide set the scene for a man-of-the-match performance.

Farrell could not dream of a better eighty minutes as he approaches the peak moments of his career, and few would deny him the moment. He is becoming one of the finest fly-half of all time, and not just for his scoring prowess, he also made more tackles than any other player from either side in the quarter final too.

With fifteen minutes to go there were just four points in it, but a nerveless organisation, tackling and kicking from Farrell maintained control. This was his game, in a team of champions. Close up shots as he prepared to take his kicks, under pressure like we can’t imagine, showed a calmness in his face and a determination in his eyes, an inner belief and resolution. You just knew that he was going to knock those kicks over.

Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable. Believe you can and you’re halfway there, as the saying goes. The worst enemy to Farrell on the field would have been his own self-doubt, but I recall an interview once where he said, I do not believe in taking the right decision on my kicking, I take a decision and make the kick right.

So what gives Farrell this self-starter attitude and self-belief, what is the framework for his mental toughness and inner confidence that we can take into the high-pressure environment of startup life?

Belief in self: First and foremost, Farrell simply believes in his abilities and strengths. He believes he can make great things happen. I’ve never met a successful person with low self-esteem. Self-belief is vital, how many things have you not done or tried because you lacked belief in yourself? As Eleanor Roosevelt so deftly put it: Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.

Belief in beating the odds: To be successful, we have to be open minded, with no sense of what you cannot do. But, bit-by-bit, life starts to teach you to limit yourself. Farrell doesn’t hope he can beat the odds on 40m penalties, he believes wholeheartedly that he will. There is no second-guessing. As they say, those who say they can and those that say they can’t are both right. If you don’t believe you can beat the odds – chances are you won’t.

Belief to deal with the inner negative voice: When you start to doubt yourself listen for a moment to that negative inner voice. Whose voice is it really? It’s often a collection of lots of different voices from different times and people from your past that causes self-belief to wane. One thing’s for sure, that inner self-critical voice shouldn’t be yours.

It may masquerade as belonging to you now, but it doesn’t really. One of the first steps is to re-examine and discard many of the limiting ideas you have about yourself, ideas that you’ve somehow collected along the way. Get rid of the baggage!

Belief in flipping a weakness into strength: Dumbo, my favourite cartoon character, was humiliated by his outsize ears. He hated them at first. But, through time, he came to use them, to fulfil his destiny, even changing his attitude. Like Dumbo, if we just focus on what is not right about ourselves rather than what is, then we miss opportunities for self-belief.

Focusing on perceived weaknesses without either taking steps to improve them or also giving fair focus toward our strengths gets us nowhere. Know that the positive flipside of a weakness, in the right context, can be put to good use.

Belief in perseverance: This is a big attribute of Farrell’s down the years. The obstacles that cause many people to quit are minor setbacks for the true champion – missing out on the 2015 world cup due to defeat by Australia in the quarter-finals will have been a huge motivation. Winners persist, losers desist. It is often that simple difference in self-belief that separates the successful person from the frustrated failure.

Belief in the vision: For Farrell, his vision was bigger than just the winning. It was a vision of being part of a champion England team. It was never about his personal success, but being part of a collective team. His self-belief got him into the team, his self-belief helped him be part of a winning team.

Startup life has a unique perspective. Along the way, various trials and tribulations will offer themselves up. It’s self-belief that determines your direction and ultimately success – its not how often you’re knocked over but how many times you get up that makes the difference.

Your beliefs determine a significant portion of your startup life. They inform your decisions, they dictate how you react to different circumstances and affect how you interact with the people around you. Beliefs determine how we think, act, and feel. If we have the wrong kinds of beliefs, we will end up in disaster. If we have the right kinds of beliefs, we will flourish. As J M Barrie said in Peter Pan, the moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.

Looking at Owen Farrell’s performances on the pitch, listening to his interviews, reading comments from manager Eddie Jones and his team mates, here are the seven key beliefs I see in Farrell that are important to becoming a success startup entrepreneur:

  • The belief that you have full control over your life and business
  • The belief that you can solve any challenges that arise
  • The belief that taking moderate risks is necessary
  • The belief that pressure can help you increase your performance
  • The belief that experimentation is a never-ending aspect of business
  • The belief that you can handle highly complex and ambiguous situations
  • The belief that you can always recover from any negative situation, and that you can always keep pushing forward

So, here is what you need to ask yourself:

Which of these beliefs is currently not a part of your worldview? Which of these beliefs are you not living on a daily basis? What steps can you take, to integrate these beliefs into your daily decision-making?

Be like Owen Farrell on the rugby pitch; be sure to put your feet in the right place, then stand firm. Believe in yourself.

Read this…