The Art of Winning: lessons for founders from Dan Carter

The Rugby World Cup group games start their next phase today, and over the next four days we have eight games – with all of the four home nations in action. Ireland v Scotland on Saturday will be the most competitive and has the most riding on it in terms of qualification for the Quarter Finals, Japan v Argentina on Sunday should be the most entertaining in terms of the open style of play of both teams. The pressure is on, who’s up for it?

Watch your thoughts, they become words; watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

This is a quote that the great All Black fly-half, Dan Carter, has written on a card he carried in his boots bag. Carter adopted it saying it gave him the ability to excel under pressure, an essential prerequisite for achieving high levels of success. Carter is the all-time highest point scorer in test match rugby. He retired in February 2021, having ended his All Blacks career with a man-of-the-match performance in the 2015 World Cup final, a victory of 34-17 versus Australia. What a game that was!

Carter was outstanding from the outset, landing 19 points from his immaculate kicking. His first, a testing penalty for 3-0, set the scene for a man-of-the-match performance. After missing the 2011 World Cup final through injury, this was the perfect ending for world rugby’s most perfect 10. Carter could not dream of a better finale to his 12-year, 112-cap All Black’s career.

Carter, of Māori descent, played from the age of five in the fly-half role, starting with Southbridge Rugby Club in the South Island of New Zealand. His great uncle was Canterbury and New Zealand half back Bill Dalley, a member of the 1924–25 Invincibles. On 16 November 2013, Carter became only the fifth All Black to gain 100 caps.

He had a World Cup winner’s medal from 2011, but it was a consolation, his injury in the pool stages turned him into water-boy in the knock-out stages, the 2015 final was his moment. This time he would not be denied. His peerless place kicking helped establish a 21-3 lead. When the Wallabies turned that around in eleven second-half minutes with Ben Smith off, it was game on.

Carter took over. Forty metres out, a drop goal struck with a precision from his left foot, as if he were back in the field at his parents’ house in Southbridge, taking aim at the homemade posts his father stuck up to save any more windows in the house from being smashed. Then, five minutes later, a penalty from further out still. That he converted Beauden Barrett’s breakaway try with his less favoured right foot was remarkable, less for the skill of it and more for the fact that it may have been the first self-indulgent act of his twelve years in an All-Blacks’ jersey.

This was his game. 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 brown eyes, an inner belief and resolution. You just knew that he was going to knock those kicks over. There was the control when all around was chaos. After his final drop-goal, he didn’t celebrate, he simply shouted to teammates next job, next job.

The 2015 World Cup final was his last game in an All-Blacks’ shirt, a thing of artistry and guile. He made sure the All Blacks played in all the right places and it was in the final ten minutes when he was Dan Carter as everyone will want to remember him. He took his time with the final penalty, went through his routine like always and then struck the ball perfectly. It was always going over. It had the legs, it had the distance, and it was then, with the All Blacks ten points ahead and with seven minutes left, that a nation could believe they were going to win.

Dan Carter is a world champion. How can you summon up his  character and take this into your startup?  Founders, like athletes, frequently encounter intense pressure as they navigate the complexities of building performance. Effectively managing pressure can be the pivotal factor that distinguishes between realising success and facing disappointment.

Here are some strategies that Dan Carter has identified from his own career in his recent book, The Art of Winning, that entrepreneurs can use to manage pressure.

1. Prepare for potential challenges through ‘what-if’ scenarios To effectively navigate uncertainty, it’s beneficial to anticipate potential challenges that might arise in the future. The All Blacks conduct ‘what-if’ scenarios in training sessions. By discussing the possibilities, the team develop plans for such situations, to be prepared for the unexpected.

Their proactive approach to uncertainty leads to an overall readiness which minimises surprise, enabling them to react swiftly and effectively to the unforeseen. Rather than being flustered this gives a sense of confidence. You embrace it, you deal with it, you move on.

2. Break down goals into intermediate steps toward success Setting ambitious goals is a hallmark of both sporting endeavours and entrepreneurship, but the path to success can often seem dauntingly long. One of the keys to conquering these grand aspirations lies in breaking them down into manageable intermediate steps. By doing so, you not only make the journey feel less overwhelming but also set yourself up for consistent progress which can then work as an antidote against the self-doubt that may creep in.

For founders, milestones serve as markers of progress toward their desired destination. While it’s essential to have a plan, entrepreneurship is inherently unpredictable and there are many things outside of one’s control. Remain open and flexible enough to adjust your intermediate steps as circumstances change.

3. Develop techniques for refocusing on the present Even if you have put together a meticulous plan for achieving your goals, staying focused on the task at hand and not dwelling on past mistakes or worrying about the future can still be a challenge. The All Blacks follow guidance from forensic psychiatrist Ceri Evans.

Entrepreneurs need to develop their own techniques for managing their minds and grounding themselves in the present.  Carter warns that the little voice in your head, telling you to quit, that you’re not good enough, is a test of your mental strength. Find ways to focus on the present and to quieten that voice.

4. Shift your mindset and embrace pressure as an opportunity Change your perspective, see pressure as a clear signal that something is important and as an opportunity for personal growth rather than a source of fear. Carter thrived under pressure every test match. But he viewed these moments as an opportunity for applying his experience and expertise, to make significant progress toward success.

Carter realised that the pressure he put on himself was often greater than any external pressure he faced. The key is to enhance your mental resilience and harness the energy that pressure can provide.

5. Create a culture where feedback is learning Founders need support, the lesson from Carter is to surround yourself with people who can make a difference, every game, developing the ability to both give and receive feedback. Carter talks about the frank exchange of views in the dressing room when games weren’t going well: One thing that we used to do to break down the barrier before a challenging discussion was to say: I would love to have a conversation with you, can I ‘enter the danger’? I have some feedback on the way you’re doing things.

As Carter highlights, the most impactful meetings occur when individuals are not afraid to be vulnerable and challenge each other, expressing their honest views. It’s important to set time aside every week for founders to have an open-door and encourage honest feedback sessions. The All-Blacks’ principle of debate, commit, walk forward together encapsulates the approach.

6. Navigate the learning curve It’s important to maintain a trajectory of success by consistently building upon your achievements whilst not becoming complacent says Carter. Achieving success, whether in sports or business, requires a long-term commitment. The journey demands learning, adaptation, and consistent growth over time.

If you aim for continuous improvement, you need to embrace a growth mindset. For Carter, a growth mindset is essentially the belief that we can improve ourselves every day, striving for progress as a daily habit. This mindset is crucial for sustaining growth and success, taking setbacks as stepping stones to instigate progress.

7. Prioritise rest and recovery for optimal performance Recognise the crucial role of rest and recovery in high-performance settings. If you’re consistently feeling low about yourself and your venture, consider taking a mentor. Often, we think that the more we work the more we achieve but your well-being is as important as the hard work and needs to be a priority.This concept of prioritising well-being is prevalent among elite sports teams and increasingly spreading to the startup world, particularly in understanding the importance of addressing mental strain.

8. Success comes to those with passion to strive Striving is more than simply being competitive, it is an attitude that illustrates that the individual is as much competing with himself as with the challenge from others. What set Carter apart from the rest was his relentless, uncompromising pursuit of extraordinary endeavour. Carter mastered his mental game, which became his competitive edge, persisting in spite of fatigue, tenacious in discovering his own style of winning.

Carter expressed an ability to reframe adversity – missing the 2007 and 2011 finals – as an opportunity for achievement in 2015. They reveal that beyond physical skill and training, there exists a champion mind set. They all have distinct cognitive and emotional make-up that allows them to relentlessly push themselves on their quest.

9. Train like a champion No matter how talented an athlete, they train to improve their skills and push peak levels of performance. Planning to compete at the highest level, and putting in a shift, high-performance athletes plan out their training schedules in advance to make sure they reach specific performance goals.

There are no pretentions. Such authenticity in high performing sportsmen and founders bolsters the courage in taking on lofty goals, always seeking the new frontier, refusing to accept the status-quo. They begin every day searching for new insights, for original thinking, for something that makes them better.

10. Don’t settle for ‘good enough’, use pressure to improve your focus Most business folk lack the level of mental discipline that Carter had in abundance. One of the risks for founders is being tolerant of sub-optimal performance. The choice is yours – average work, yields average results. Choose your attitude and get the right mind set.

As a founder, success comes from finding a way to tap into your inner strength to keep going, it’s what you’ll need to put one foot in front of another. Remember, Carter, like every champion, was once a contender that refused to give up.

Carter’s success is down to his perseverance – it’s the hard work he did after he got tired of doing the hard work he’d alreadydone. I’m sure the words of Dick Fosbury will resonate with him: When my body got tired, my mind said this where winners are made; when my mind got tired, my heart said this is where champions are made.

Carter has retired. There should be sadness. Instead, there can be only celebration to have witnessed possibly the finest fly-half of all time. Man of the match in the World Cup final, an All Black’s victory, and a contribution of 19 points. Thinking correctly under pressure, he showed what the Art of Winning is all about. Take heart and heed his mantra.

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