England need to know ‘the beauty of failure’

Down and out: England captain Chris Robshaw (right) apologised to the nation. © PA

A shattering defeat by Australia condemned England to elimination from the Rugby World Cup at the first stage. Is winning a game all that matters? Or is true sport about learning how to lose?

The stiff upper lip held firm. England’s players shook hands with the Australians, thanked the officials and formed a guard of honour for the men who had just ground them into submission.

They were enduring the lowest moment in their country’s rugby history. The crushing 33-13 defeat they had just suffered had knocked them out of the World Cup they were hosting after just three matches. It was the first time they had ever failed to reach the quarter-finals; no host nation had ever suffered such a fate.

The English people have become accustomed to ignominious failure in World Cups recently. Over the last 16 months, only the women’s footballers, who came close to reaching the World Cup final, have given the country a story of relative success on the global stage. The men’s football team went out of their tournament in Brazil in the first week and the nation’s cricketers were humbled by Bangladesh at the first stage of theirs.

Dealing with such a high-profile failure brings its own challenges. Captain Chris Robshaw told the press on Saturday night: ‘We feel we let the country down today. We apologise to them’. Sports psychologist Peter Haberl says sportsmen and women commonly respond this way, often with devastating consequences. American runner Suzy Hamilton, for example, who lost the 1,500m at the 2000 Olympics after being the favourite, suffered from depression years later and even contemplated suicide.

But failure is the most common experience in sport. Only one of the 20 teams taking part in the Rugby World Cup will become champions, and only 302 of the 10,500 athletes who took part in London 2012 won gold medals. Even many of the world’s greatest have tasted defeat — boxer Muhammad Ali was beaten five times in his career. And past failures are often a driving force behind their success: when Rory McIlroy won golf’s US Open by eight shots in 2011, he said his chastening experience at the Masters a few months earlier had played a crucial part.

Over and out

This failure is good for England, some say. Like Ali and McIlroy, the team will ultimately rebound and be all the better for the bitter lessons of Saturday night.

‘How trite!’ say others. Rather than seeing failure merely as a stepping stone to achievement we need to appreciate its distinctive essence. Only then can we be fully grown-up and experience the rich emotions available to us. Just as understanding the night as merely a period that gives birth to day would cause us to miss so much of its particular charm, so seeing failure only as an element of success causes us to dismiss at least half of human experience.

You Decide

  1. Do England’s players deserve any credit?
  2. Can defeat have positive consequences?


  1. Think of a time when you failed. How did you feel at the time and what did you learn from it afterwards?
  2. Write a letter to Stuart Lancaster, the head coach of the England team, explaining how he should respond to the World Cup exit and why.

Some People Say...

“Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Can I really learn from my failures, or is saying so just patronising?
Failure is tough, and can knock some people’s confidence and self-esteem. But we can also learn to do things differently: David Beckham, for example, was nationally vilified when he was sent off in a crucial World Cup match but later became England’s most-capped outfield footballer. It can also show us how to deal with tough situations (which, unfortunately, are common) and give us an insight into what we’re really good at. Trying and struggling in one school subject, for example, can help to show us where else our talents lie.
Are there good and bad ways to fail?
If you’ve failed, there is always value in retaining your dignity. The England players’ response at the final whistle on Saturday was a good example of this.

Word Watch

Their country’s rugby history
In the previous seven World Cups, England had won once and been runners-up twice, semi-finalists once and quarter-finalists three times.
Women’s footballers
England defied expectations in this summer’s World Cup by finishing third, beating hosts Canada and one of the favourites, Germany, on the way. They were eliminated as a result of a late own goal against Japan in the semi-finals.
Suzy Hamilton
Hamilton said that she had not contemplated failure before the race and had trained only to think about winning. She then said she felt an intense level of pressure from the knowledge that so many people were supporting her. There is some extra detail about her in the second link under ‘Become an Expert’.
Chastening experience
McIlroy was four shots ahead of his rivals before the final day, having never won a major championship before. But he shot a score of 80 on the final day, the worst ever recorded by a leader of the competition, and finished tied in 15th place. McIlroy has subsequently been the world’s number one golfer and won four major championships.


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