Sir Clive Woodward OBE – One step ahead – Gaining the competitive edge needed to win in sport and business

Written by Ben Arnold, Tim Ive and Emily Irons.

Sir Clive Woodward is best known as the England Rugby Head Coach who led England to World Cup victory in 2003. However, prior to coaching rugby, Sir Clive spent over 16 years working in business. At the IBM Analytics Vision event in November 2017, Sir Clive gave an inspiring talk on the parallel concepts between business and sport, and the significance of data and technology throughout. He attributes some of his success as a rugby coach to the experience he gained from his stint in the business world, and the use of data and IT to gain valuable insight and a competitive edge.

Talent alone is not enough

Talent is the starting point, but it needs to be developed. Sir Clive introduced the sponge vs. rock analogy. Rocks are the ‘know-it-alls’, unwilling to change, and this stubbornness puts them at a disadvantage. Sponges, however, have a passion for knowledge. They are willing to adapt and to learn, and with this comes ‘teach-ability’. Everyone on the team must be a sponge. Having just one rock on your team is enough to vastly reduce your chances of winning.

Whoever wins in IT, tends to win

By introducing IT to the team, Sir Clive was quickly able to identify who were the sponges and who were the rocks. Newly developed software was used to track all 30 players on the pitch using cameras positioned around the stadium. Whilst technology of this sort is now common within sport, in 2003, this ground-breaking software allowed, for the first time, the players to gain an unbiased, objective view of their movements, and to be able to analyse their own and their opponents’ performance.

With this innovative new technology, England were one step ahead of their opponents as the leader in rugby analytics. Consequently, they became the leader on the scoreboard too.

Data is not knowledge

Data is a facilitator, and Sir Clive outlined a ‘3D learning process’ through which knowledge can be leveraged from data.

  1. Discover – Capture and share information and knowledge (HINDSIGHT).
  2. Distil – Identify the “keys” to success, how or why things happen (INSIGHT).
  3. Do – Leverage these “keys” through relevant deliberate practice (FORESIGHT).

For the England rugby team, this included analysis of other international teams. This external data is as vital as the internal. For the first time, the players and the coaching team were able to remove any preconceived notions about how other teams played and to statistically analyse the data collected. Before the opponents even stepped on that pitch, the England team knew every step they’d make, they know how fast and how hard they were working.

Thinking Correctly Under Pressure (TCUP)

In every meeting room there would sit a clock, a scoreboard and a whiteboard. On the clock – 5 minutes left to play. On the scoreboard – 4 points down. On the whiteboard – a specific situation on the field. What would you do? The players were directly involved in discussions to consider every situation, and the best solution decided, utilising the performance analytics. Therefore, when this situation arose during a high-pressured match situation, each of the 15 players on the pitch would know exactly how to react, and to Think Correctly Under Pressure.

Sir Clive emphasised the importance of applying these concepts within business environments to achieve success, as he had in rugby. That England remain the only country in the Northern hemisphere ever to have won the Rugby World Cup serves as a reminder of this.