Sir Clive Woodward: “Whoever wins in IT tends to win.”

Pete Marcus

19 Apr 2016

Last week I was fortunate enough to hear Sir Clive Woodward speak at a Chime event for staff and clients.

Given that he is famous as the coach of England’s 2003 World Cup-winning rugby team and the performance director of the British Olympics team in 2012, I was expecting plenty of anecdotes about sport.

But what I wasn’t expecting was that his talk would focus so much on technology.

Sir Clive (who worked for Xerox before becoming England’s rugby coach) has a simple but surprising mantra when it comes to delivering sporting success: “Whoever wins in IT tends to win.”

He believes that technology, not talent, is ultimately what differentiates the winners and losers. Everyone you’re up against has talent, he argues, but tech can be your edge.

That’s why he invested in a state-of-the-art ProZone system to analyse players’ movements during games at Twickenham. And it’s why he gave every England rugby player a laptop, so they could research things online and use ProZone themselves to study their performance (and their rivals’). (Less than 10% of the England team had a laptop when Sir Clive started as coach in 1997.)

“IT allows you to leverage your knowledge and understanding,” Sir Clive says – in other words technology is an amplifier, not a distraction.

But, that said, technology needs to be used carefully. “The biggest thing about IT is can the athletes use it and learn from it?”, Sir Clive said. Giving players tech equipment helps you quickly distinguish between what Sir Clive called “sponges” (quick learners) and “rocks” (who simply weren’t going to adapt and modernise).

Similarly, introducing players to ProZone can risk overwhelming them with data. “You need to drip-feed in data to players,” Sir Clive argued. “You need to teach them over time.”

And data can’t just exist for the sake of it, it must help athletes understand things. Too many British sport coaches, in Sir Clive’s view, “are all about ‘tell, tell, tell’” and don’t spend time explaining why an athlete should do something. It’s this “why” that the data needs to illuminate.

According to Sir Clive, when it comes to technology every sport “piggybacks off Formula 1.” F1 has pioneered everything from performance analysis to team communications and real-time physiological feedback about athletes’ fitness.

Where F1 leads, other sports eventually follow; there’s probably no other sport where Sir Clive’s mantra is as relevant: “Whoever wins in IT tends to win.”