Bring it on! You’re only as good as your last play

Co-Founder and Insights Director

“Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder …”

Springtime in September in our Land Down Under is a feast of riches for sports-fans. With a choice of the Australian AFL and NRL finals, and the international Rugby Championship.

And a whole new level of intensity and skill for players, moving up (but only if you made the final 8) from the main season into epic, elimination fixtures. In Union, Super Rugby form is no real guide to outcomes in the hard grind of the test arena.

With my background as a radio Content Director/Market Researcher, I’ve always loved using analogies from sports management for inspiration. A symbiotic relationship, as my work also includes sports media, where on & off-field drama IS the content.

There’s nothing like a coaching or refereeing/umpiring controversy to move the ratings needle!

There are great similarities in the intensity of contests, total reliance on both high-performing talent and ‘comrades-in-arms’ teamwork, daily knife-edge PR monitoring, the need for sponsorship revenue, and the acquisition & retention of fans in a fragmented, competitive environment.

You’re only as good as your last game or ratings!

And why there are many examples of cross-pollination of execs between sports and entertainment.

The crowd is a short-attention-span, insatiable beast seeking the bread & circuses of novelty and instant gratification. Management is an addictive mixture of perpetually feeling both terrified and exhilarated.

A major feature of this Game of Thrones is the battle between …

  1. a) the ‘uneasy head’ wearing the crown, as odds-on favourite at the top of the ladder.
  2. b) the rest of the pack thirsting for underdog glory by beheading the king.

Which generates great myths and legends about the invincibility of the leaders when they’ve been at the top for a long time, and can be a psychological advantage in mind games like home-team ‘fortress’ stadiums and historical ‘hoodoos’.

In radio, winning streaks create a similar aura of dominance, and are usually driven by alpha personalities in the morning or afternoon drive shows, and the mid-morning host in talk radio.

Secure the right talent in both sport and radio, build a great team around them, and you condemn your competition to a long, frustrating search for counter-measures. Which often culminate in a desperate, multi-million $ poaching bid, that could take years to pay-off.

Here in New Zealand, we take enormous pride in the All Blacks, and the 2018 Super Rugby champions The Crusaders from Christchurch, for consistently winning, and showing how our small nation can punch above its weight on the world stage.

The All Blacks especially, are seen as near unbeatable, and it’s a national pastime to watch competitors and their home media grapple with the challenge.

Well, on Saturday 15 September the unthinkable happened! The All Blacks were beaten by traditional rivals the South African Springboks, on New Zealand soil for the first time since 2009. In a nail-biting 36-34 wrestle on the visitors’ try-line in the dying minutes, complete with the drama of a disputed refereeing call.

Such is the psychology around ‘invincibles’, the thinking goes that surely the Boks must have found a secret key to unlocking the All Blacks. And whatever it is, we want it too!

But in this excellent, timely article by The Guardian’s rugby union correspondent Robert Kitson, he interviews new World Rugby Hall-of-Famer, Irish legend Ronan O’Gara on why

 “There’s no secret to the All Blacks, but no one believes that”.

Published just before the upset result was known.

Ronan O’Gara has a unique perspective from both outside the All Blacks, but also deep inside The Crusaders as Backs Coach.

So what can we learn?

He talks about the timeless Kiwi holy trinity of …

  1. Hard work– “people might underestimate that”.
  2. Humility
  3. Inch-perfect skill execution– “The best of it has just been experiencing it up close, with your own two eyes. You only get the full vibe of what makes a place tick by doing it that way. I can only speak for the Crusaders but it is impressive,their desire to get better, day in, day out.”

Coaching Style

So instead of the traditional top-down approach of barking out orders, “They have a great mantra: ‘Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I will remember. Involve me and I will understand.’ Then the players will deliver the message because they are accountable on a Saturday. The coaches are the fall-back position to help.”

Summed up in the creed …

“Keep it simple, make every action count.”

Then there’s ‘rugby intellect’.

Some of the guys over there are so good they’re nearly player-coaches. It’s not necessarily the household names. There’s a centre called Tim Bateman, who probably didn’t even play five games, yet his knowledge of the game is fascinating.”

So, can the All Blacks be beaten?

According to Ronan O’Gara “Of course they can be beaten. But consistently beaten? I don’t know. They prepare very well and they keep it simple. They know their roles and they care about each other as well. You know they’ll perform, it’s whether the home nations can.”

“Even coaches who coached me overestimated them. That filters down into the players’ heads so it became difficult to beat them. I don’t think the natural talent in New Zealand is better than some of the talent we have on this side of the world. Defensively in Europe we are more advanced than they are, most definitely.”

So there’s a lot more to it than hiring superstars! Of course, that does bring tremendous advantages, but will be negated if the team under-performs or is even dysfunctional. And what do you do, if something happens to take the star out of action?

Which brings to mind the old saying about which is better – a Team of Champions or a Champion Team?

For example, the Sydney Swans AFL franchise is a blue-chip brand with a proud record of success. This year they made the Top 8, but were eliminated in the first week of the finals by cross-town rivals, the GWS Giants – even with powerhouse forward Buddy Franklin, on a 9 year, $10m, free-agent contract. The talk inevitably is around what the Swans do next, with Buddy 5 years in, and at age 31. You’d think it has to be a team, not just a cheque-book, strategy.

A long winning streak, as mentioned above, messes with competitor’s heads. Keeping the focus on the leader, instead of what you CAN control, with your core tasks being developing your team and looking after your fans.

I see this a lot in radio where ‘competitor focus’ becomes an unhealthy obsession with reacting to every move they make. Letting them run you, and even copying them – so you’re positioned as a poor imitation. Of course you need to analyse their game in great detail, but in a way that searches for their exploitable weaknesses – and they will exist if you look hard enough. Which is where ‘game intellect’ kicks in.

The Springboks win included an aggressive swarming defence against the All Blacks’ preferred slick, free-running style. Somewhat of a theme developing from rare previous defeats, and being noted in the rugby world. Coupled with the Boks’ self-belief, grit and determination, as quoted by them in the aftermath – culminating in their tears and elation at full-time. A true sports fairy-tale, that even one-eyed Kiwis are celebrating … well most of them 🙂

The Takeaway

  • No one is invincible!
  • Sure it takes time, but continuous improvement will eventually pay-off.
  • Make every action count. Skill and details matter, so you’re prepared when the leader drops their guard, as inevitably happens. Complacency, and sticking to the ‘orthodoxy of success’ is human nature. And a big risk at the top, when innovation dries up to protect the position.
  • Give your team a sense of purpose, and the WHY of your strategy & tactics. So they’re fully immersed in the direction, and committed to each other – no matter how great the odds seem against you.
  • Be a lifelong student of your craft. Knowledge is power, and essential to analysing the leader. Being able to recognise even the smallest opportunity when it presents itself.
  • The battle is won in the mind, before the game. Don’t let your dominating opponent control yours.

It’s finals September down south, when underdogs can shake off their chains and bite!

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