What Rugby Taught Me About Growth Mindset

Rugby team
Daniel Felicio
Daniel Felicio
November 10, 2021
8 minutes
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When I was 14, I was thrilled to take on rugby. Despite being small for my age and not particularly strong, I enjoyed the team game and discovered that the physical and mental challenges of it allowed me to push myself in new ways. Due to my physique, it would have been no surprise if my playing experiences had gone wrong, but two years into it, my team and I were participating in both national and international competitions. I wasn’t the fastest or the strongest kid on the field, but I could use my agility to contribute to the team’s success. I almost always got tackled and believe me when I say that my parents were convinced my bruises would never fade. I will never forget what my trainer once said to me around this time: “We have guys who are faster, bigger and stronger than you. Do you know why I am taking you in for the competitions and not someone else? You are a team player. You think for the entire team!” I felt deeply honored. I was very much aware of my limitations, but that sentence has shaped me forever.

Later, as an adult, I realized that rugby taught me so much more than just being a team player. Remembering certain situations on the rugby pitch, I realized that I chose to act with different mindsets. Sometimes I had the tendency to limit myself, and my fixed mindset was holding me back, but often I had the desire to learn and could act on – what I know now – a so called growth mindset.

I had experienced what it took to have a growth mindset on the rugby pitch, but in later life, I found that it could be equally applied to the business world. Nowadays, we all know that in a business sense, the world is constantly changing – just like the shifting play on a rugby field. Therefore, companies need to adapt to meet the needs of their customers and markets. Consequently, organizations must stay curious, resilient, willing to experiment and adapt. Basically, if they don't nurture a growth mindset, they are much more likely to fail.  

Looking back on my rugby career, I now see a connection between what I was doing then and what I do now professionally. When I was on the pitch, it was not just about teamwork and self-confidence as a player but something else that led to success. It was the mindset.

A Growth Mindset Definition for Business and Sports

Academics have sought to define a growth mindset, take it from Carol Dweck, a professor of Psychology at Stanford University. According to her, a growth mindset is based on the belief that anyone's underlying qualities are things they can cultivate through their efforts. “Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience,” she wrote. As mentioned by Dweck, there are two main mindsets with which we can navigate our way through life: growth and fixed. Both mindsets face challenges, obstacles, effort, criticisms, and responses to the success of others. However, they deal with them in very different ways. People with a growth mindset, for example, embrace challenges and see effort as a pathway to mastery. In contrary, people with fixed mindsets will avoid challenges, give up when they encounter obstacles and feel threatened when those around them enjoy success.

That connects with my business experience today as well. The adoption of a growth mindset is important to me because there is nothing more fulfilling than seeing how people around me are developing on their journey and are helping others develop. I believe that the biggest barrier for change in oneself is very often one’s own mind.

This is something emphasized by my colleague Bettina Rotermund, Head of Strategic Marketing at Siemens IoT: “We constantly need to try out new things in order to succeed and to be ahead of the curve. If you try out new things, then the chance of failing in the first place is quite high, but we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and try something out.”

Growth Mindset vs. a Fixed Mindset on the Rugby Field

According to Carol Dweck’s definition, both mindsets face the same characteristics. It’s about how people deal with challenges, obstacles, effort, and criticism. Let’s have a closer look at these four areas to better understand the differences between both concepts.

Challenges

When I began playing rugby, I was smaller than the others on my team. I didn't have their experience or power. However, I was open to what the coaches told me and to finding ways where my physicality wouldn't hold me back. In fact, I used my agility rather than brute strength to help my team gain momentum. In short, I had a growth mindset that embraced the challenge of a physically demanding game where brainpower often counts just as much as brawn.

Had I had a fixed mindset, what would have happened? Most likely, I would have never discovered I could manage on my own towards the ends of games as some of the bigger players tired. I would not have found that my team player status was so valued among my teammates, and I wouldn't have gone on to enjoy so many memorable wins with them either.

Obstacles

As Dweck points out, how you handle obstacles is a key part of differentiating a growth mindset vs a fixed mindset. Overcoming obstacles, as opposed to avoiding them, is key to demonstrating a growth mindset. One of the growth mindset characteristics I found I developed as a rugby player was derived from the fact that I was often too aware of my limitations as a player. An obstacle I faced on the pitch every time I played was tackling a bigger player coming my way. However, by learning the right technique and using his body weight against him in contact, I was able to learn how to overcome this obstacle.

With a fixed mindset, I'd have failed. I could have opted for what I knew was comfortable and put in a poor attempt at a tackle, of course. However, that would have meant another player on my team having to take responsibility on my behalf and double up the defense. That's the consequence of a fixed mindset that sees obstacles as insurmountable. It's something I hear in business: that things cannot be done. However, with a growth mindset, there is no obstacle that cannot be overcome.

Effort

In rugby, work rate, or distance covered by a player during a match, counts for a lot. Teams that have more tackles tend to win, especially in close games. The try scorers and kickers may get the plaudits, but the team effort is what counts. Anyone who has played the game rather than just watched it knows that. As the American Football Coach, Vince Lombardi, once said, “Individual commitment to a group effort is what makes a team work.” Lombardi went on further, saying it is also what makes companies and even entire civilizations work.

Looking back, it now seems obvious to me that this was a behavior of a growth mindset. I'm glad I put the effort in because, without it, I'd have not seen the benefit of a team working together and, perhaps, played for individual glory. Rather like the Gestalt theory of mind, we need to see the big picture rather than micro-managing our own efforts. In short, we're greater than the sum of our parts, but with a fixed mindset, you may never realize this truth.

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It's something I hear in business: that things cannot be done. However, with a growth mindset, there is no obstacle that cannot be overcome.

Criticism

As a rugby player, our coach had some open and honest conversations with my teammates and I about what we were doing wrong collectively and what we needed to change tactically. As a kid you don’t like to hear about what you are doing wrong, that’s for sure. Of course, I tried to use the feedback that my coach gave me, but was I feeling good about it? Not really, and sometimes I couldn't take the criticisms that came my way, which affected my game. A classic example of a fixed mindset.

Had I had a growth mindset back then, I would have been able to deal with constructive criticism. I would have been open to it and even have encouraged it. That being said, the experience shaped me. I now see that players with growth mindsets don't take such critical conversations personally, and this is a quality common to most highly successful athletes, not limited to rugby.

I realize now that a fixed mindset affects us all to some degree. Staying in your comfort zone often means thinking you know what’s best for you, which you might! However, without a growth mindset, you will never know for sure what else you could have learned from a fair and valid critique of your work.

The Success of Others

Let's face it, winning is great. Playing in front of your family, friends and teammates as a kid and then winning is one of the greatest feelings of happiness and motivation. Losing on the other hand, that hurts. When I was a kid, I couldn't bear losing, and I could think of enough reasons why the other team didn't deserve to win or why it was just a close call that made them win. Now I know that this is a prime example of a fixed mindset, and I was not able to acknowledge the success of others because of my jealousy and my inability to draw anything positive from it.

Instead, playing in a team with a growth mindset, I should have been able to enjoy the success of those around me. Through failure we should support each other, both other teams and other teammates, and acknowledge the sacrifices others make to get to where they are today.

This is just as true playing team sports as it is working for a forward-thinking organization like Siemens Advanta. Corporate culture means adopting a growth mindset, and this helps everyone to enjoy each other's successes and savor the contributions we, as individuals, have made.

At Siemens Advanta, we have a mindset to be proud of. Of course, not everyone and especially not every individual has a mindset that is 100% and always that of a growth mindset, but our company’s focus currently is to encourage each employee to work on himself and herself and to develop constantly. Without it, the organization would not be the versatile innovator it is. Furthermore, with a fixed mindset, the various teams wouldn't enjoy each other's success to the same degree. That would be detrimental for the entire ecosystem of professional cooperation and, in the end, the commercial resilience of the company. Enjoying the success of others isn't just about a pat on the back, but also ensures organizations can change and adapt to meet all future challenges.

Growth Mindset Learning in Summary

In sports, being able to embrace challenges, overcome obstacles, put in the effort that is required, take criticism and use it as positive feedback, and take delight in the success of others yields results. Especially in team sports, having each of these growth mindset characteristics means being able to get more out of the activity than previously expected.

Sure, a growth mindset in a team game can bring about more success on the field, but it goes further. Look at my story: Through rugby and other valuable life experiences, I have learned and have developed a growth mindset – but how do I apply that mindset today? The answer is I try to apply it to everything I do professionally. I've taken that growth mindset and continued to use it throughout my career, encouraging others to do so and step out of their comfort zones along the way.

Through my personal story and the deep dive of the individual five characteristics of the two types of mindsets – growth and fixed - it should become clear what significance a growth mindset can have for success in life, in work and, ultimately, for a company. For me, being eager to learn about curiosity in personal development is something that I am constantly learning over and over again. Especially as a leader, it’s so important to help others develop, help them to be open and curious, and to acquire new skills to constantly nurture their growth mindset.

By investing in partnerships and ecosystems as Siemens does, it is possible to develop a growth mindset that will lead to prolonged business success. As my colleague Bettina puts it, “Our markets and our environments are changing so rapidly and our innovation circle has become so short, we constantly need to try out new things in order to succeed and in order to be ahead of the curve.”

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Especially as a leader, it’s so important to help others develop, help them to be open and curious, and to acquire new skills to constantly nurture their growth mindset.

Changing Your Mindset with Growth Mindset Goal Setting

If you dare to dream, then you can step out of your comfort zone as well. I know many people will have fixed mindsets, and it is also important to accept this. No one should be unnecessarily critical of a fixed mindset if there is the willingness to change. For some, it may come easier to switch to a growth mindset than others; change is a process, not an end result! Set achievable growth mindset goals for yourself that allow you to step out of your comfort zone and to experiment with new ways of doing things. After all, experimentation is part of what it takes to obtain a growth mindset and shift away from a fixed one.

Remember that it doesn’t happen overnight, nor can one completely maintain one type of mindset only. We're all a blend of the two to some extent. As rugby players know, sometimes you need to tighten up your game while in other situations, you need to take more risks to overcome the opposition.

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Daniel Felicio
Daniel Felicio
Head of Siemens Advanta Solutions
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