Clive Woodward - the art of winning

Written by
Karam Filfilan

27 May 2016

27 May 2016 • by Karam Filfilan

“This is a good place to start,” says Sir Clive Woodward, fixing me with a steely look. “Name a high-performing team.”

My mind goes blank. I’m supposed to be the interviewer here. Twenty seconds of awkward silence pass, my mind scrabbling for the names of businesses, brands, sports teams. Eventually, I blurt out: “Arsenal?” 

The life-long Chelsea fan smiles politely, underwhelmed by my choice of a team that wilted under pressure again this year. However, there is more to it than that. In Woodward’s world, I’ve just failed one of his key performance indicators. If I were an England player or an elite British athlete, I’d be out of his squad.

The importance of T-CUP in 2003

Thinking Correctly Under Pressure (T-CUP) is the cornerstone of Woodward’s approach to creating a winning team. A concept first labelled by Israeli life coach Yehuda Shinar, T-CUP is about making correct decisions underthe utmost stress. In business, this could be making the right strategic move. In sport, it means making the right – practised – call at the pivotal moment of the match.

For Woodward, this is best exemplified by the way his England team won the 2003 Rugby World Cup. With scores tied at 17-17, and less than a minute left of extra time, England executed four phases of rugby that ended with Jonny Wilkinson kicking the match-winning drop goal. In 38 seconds, seven different players touched the ball, making seven passes and one kick. Each player made exactly the right decision at the right moment, under intense pressure.

Making these correct calls was the by-product of hundreds of hours of intensive training, on and off pitch. In his book, Winning!, Woodward recalls pausing coaching sessions to put individual players on the spot, giving them a high-pressure scenario and asking them to explain, instantaneously, what they would do. Those who hesitated were, he believed, the players who could lose him a World Cup.


"Managing upwards is straightforward. You simply have to take them with you" 

Business background

As a former England international, Woodward grew up in the era before rugby became a professional game. He was also a successful businessman, working for Xerox, then running his own computer leasing company for seven years until his appointment as the first professional England rugby coach in 1997. He feels this experience was vital in taking the sport out of the amateur era, particularly with the Rugby Football Union (RFU) used to working with a part-time coach, usually burdened by external responsibilities.

“I had 18 years in business before becoming England coach, so I was used to board meetings,” he says. “Managing upwards is straightforward. You simply have to take them with you. I made it clear
when I was presenting to the board: ‘I’m not asking for permission. I’m telling you what I’m doing.”

This uncompromising style led to clashes with RFU bosses, from discord over the standard of accommodation on overseas tours to the size of his World Cup backroom staff. Despite his 2003 victory, he resigned a year later in a dispute over how England prepared for matches, saying: “I wanted more and we have ended up with less.”

Woodward is happy to test any idea that might help his end goal. Rugby commentator Eddie Butler described him as “the nutty professor, everything bubbling and boiling away strictly in accordance with his calculations”.

The man himself prefers the term ‘critical non-essentials’, which involves a raft of small improvements that can set elite teams apart from their rivals. 

Critical non-essentials

Taken from dentist-turned-businessguru Paddi Lund, the idea behind critical non-essentials is simple. In business, if you assume your main competitors have an equal quality of employees, resources and training, how do you gain an advantage? For Woodward, you do this by seeking creative solutions that improve hundreds of little details.

“There is no such thing as a dumb idea,” he argues. “It’s a sackable offence in team meetings to think ‘I best not say that in case someone laughs at me’. Get it off your chest.

“I always thought players had more ideas than the management, so you have to harness that. I don’t think I’m great at ideas, but I am great at putting ideas into place.”

Woodward’s time in sport is littered with small adjustments that helped his athletes make the correct decisions under pressure, for example, employing eye coach Dr Sherylle Calder to improve peripheral vision and reaction times. And his use of data and analytics has clear parallels with business.

The role of data in success

In the run-up to the 2003 World Cup, Woodward approached sports analytics developers Prozone and asked them to design a data analysis system to allow him to monitor the performance of his players. Over several matches, Woodward’s coaching team collected data on his players’ workrate, how they developed different plays and where and how mistakes happened. Crucially, he was able to get the same data on the opposition players.

With many business leaders struggling to adapt big data and analytics into their organisations, I ask Woodward how he avoided overloading teams with information.

“Initially, we simply showed players the movements they made,” he says. “Getting players to look at it and ask if we’d done the right thing made a massive difference to preparation.

“We all wanted to win and evaluating ourselves was a part of that. The data allowed players to be more critical of us as coaches too.”

Engaging with every individual

By creating an environment where leadership, teamship and partnership with external providers combine, Woodward believes business and sports teams can prosper, particularly combined with the use of new technology; at Team GB, Woodward implemented real-time video analysis of athletes.

So, as a winner in rugby, athletics and business, what’s the ultimate secret to his success?

“Engage with every individual,” he urges. “If you don’t, they can rebel without meaning to and sap the energy and drive from your organisation. Explain how critical non-essentials will allow them to do their job better, and take them with you.”