What Playing Rugby Taught Me About Life and Career Success

The Rugby World Cup final is tomorrow. You can watch it on NBC at 12:00 noon Eastern time. Rugby has been a big part of my life. I first walked on to a rugby pitch in the fall on 1968. I was a freshman at Penn State. I chose rugby because I wasn’t able to compete at the Division I level in football. Besides that, I wanted to concentrate on my studies. I was the first person in my family to get the opportunity to attend college. I wasn’t going to blow it.

Rugby was the perfect sport for me. In those days it was a club sport – and still is a most colleges and universities. That meant that we practiced only twice a week and played on Saturday. This gave me plenty of time to focus on my studies, and truth be told, do a little partying. On the other hand, it was a tough physical contact sport. I liked that. Even today, when people ask why I don’t golf, I always answer that I am best at team sports where you run into somebody and knock him over.

Rugby also provided me a lot of opportunities after I graduated. I played with men’s clubs and alumni clubs. As I got older, I played with Old Boys clubs and finally Senior Old Boys clubs. I played my last match in Vail CO on August 14, 2010 – my 60th birthday. It was an Over 50’s match, but most of the guys on the pitch that day were about 10 years younger than me. All good things must come to an end.

In between my first match at Penn State and that last one in Vail, I played all over the USA, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. I was once selected to the Ohio Rugby Football Union representative side. I’ve made lifelong friends on the pitch. Most important, I learned a lot that has helped me run a successful coaching and consulting business all these years.

Here are the three biggest things that I learned about life and career success on the rugby pitch:

  • Stay calm and under control, especially when things get hectic.
  • Adapt to the situation, don’t expect it to adapt to you.
  • Stuff happens. Forget about it and move on. A match is 80 minutes.

Here is a quick overview on my thoughts on each of these…

Ball possession is important in rugby. A rugby ball, while not as pointed as an American football can take some pretty odd bounces. When the ball is bouncing around, it’s very tempting to attempt to pick it up and run with it, or to “fly hack” it – kicking at it blindly in the hopes that the result will be positive.

The smart thing to do when a ball is bouncing around in the open field is to fall on it, securing possession for your side. This takes courage. When you fall on a loose ball, you run the risk of getting a boot in your face from someone trying to fly hack it. But if you are courageous enough to fall on the ball, good things are likely to happen for your side.

Falling on the ball helps you stay under control. In business, slowing down and thinking things through is the equivalent of falling on the ball. When things get hectic in business – tight deadlines, unexpected problems it’s easy to fall into the activity trap, doing something, anything. However, I have learned that slowing down and thinking things through will help you get under control. It takes courage to do this. Lots of people, probably your boss, want to see action. Taking time to think can mark you as someone who is not action oriented. But I have found that you’ll make better decisions and achieve better results by taking time to think things through before you take action for action’s sake.

Second, you can’t control everything. Sometimes you can control very little in a situation. It’s best to adapt to the situation that hoping that it will adapt to you.

Here’s a rugby example. I am a tight head prop. My main job is to anchor the scrum to help us win as much ball as we can. I don’t handle the ball very often. However, over the years I have had to field my share of kicks.

In rugby, you can’t throw or propel the forward with your hands. If a ball is passed to you and you drop it in front of you, that’s a minor violation and a scrum to the other side. The same is true if you mishandle a kick and it falls in front of you. Because I don’t have the greatest hands in the world, fielding kicks, especially high ones, can be a real adventure for me.

Here’s how I learned to compensate and adapt to the situation. I learned to field kicks over my shoulder. In that way, if I dropped one, it would fall behind, not in front, of me. While dropping a kicked ball behind you isn’t ideal, at least you’re not giving the other side an opportunity to possess the ball.

It’s like that in business too. Let’s say you’re a sales person and your competition comes out with a truly whiz bang product that beats yours hands down. You can complain about this situation and use it as an excuse for not meeting your sales quota. Or you can figure out how to proactively deal with this problem.

Will you provide better service? Will you counter the objections your customers are raising about the superiority of the other product? Will you look for new customers? The point is, when the situation isn’t in your favor, you need to take action to turn it around.

Finally, stuff happens in your life and career – just like it does in a rugby game. One of the first things I learned on the rugby pitch is that the referee is always right – even when he’s wrong. Unlike baseball, where arguments with the umpires livens up what can be a dreadfully slow game, rugby players accept calls and move one. The match is 80 minutes. One bad call usually doesn’t cause you to lose the match.

Just like in a rugby match, stuff will happen as you go about creating your career success; some good, some bad. That’s OK. When tough stuff happens see what you can learn from the situation and move on.

Didn’t get the promotion you wanted? Don’t dwell on the unfairness of it all. Figure out what you can do to be a better candidate next time. Your proposal was rejected by senior leadership? Don’t think they’re idiots. Find out exactly why you were turned down, and use that information to make your next proposal even better.

Stuff happens, on the rugby pitch and in your career. Successful ruggers and professionals don’t dwell on the negative. They learn what they can from it and move on.

To close, I love rugby. It has made a very positive difference in my life. I learned a lot about life and career success on the pitch. I hope you can benefit from, and use these learnings.

Your career mentor,


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