‘You learn through conversations with people who have got the knowledge’

No sport could survive as a spectacle if the players and teams never faced any setbacks. Understanding how to deal with defeat – and bounce back using the lessons of failure to scale new heights – is central to England captain Owen Farrell’s outlook.

His achievements eclipse most players’ in the modern era and his consistent performances have seen him make a regular appearance on Eddie Jones’s England team sheet. But that doesn’t mean everything is always as rosy for Owen as the logo on his England shirt.
 
In March, for example, he was part of the team that let slip a 31-0 lead to draw 38-38 with Scotland in the 2019 Six Nations. And the team’s failure to progress out of the pool stages in their home World Cup in 2015 – after defeat to Wales and Australia – was a blip in the current England captain’s career. But the real test is how someone responds to that kind of setback. 
 
“When you suffer big losses and get knocked out of tournaments early, of course you tend to have a good look at yourself, which means you're able to move on and get better," Farrell told Sky Sports ahead of this year’s World Cup in Japan. “And hopefully not dwell on it too long, but use it to improve.” 

Pressure to perform

A player doesn’t rack up a résumé like Farrell’s – with three nominations for World Rugby Player of the Year, for example - without recognising and even embracing fallibility.
 
The level of exposure Owen experiences ratchets up the impact of a setback. There’s a big difference between a shot at goal in front of the posts at the end of a training session, and lining up a winning penalty kick in front of a crowd of 82,000. 
 
The technical requirements are the same. But pressure changes the whole dynamic. And if you miss, the setback is felt all the more. Farrell has a few simple words of advice. “If things aren’t working… focus on what you can do now, and give everything to that,” he says. “I find when mistakes happen, you become subconsciously uptight and that doesn’t help you when you’re going on to the next thing.”
Owen Farrell Lions

Owen Farrell leaves the pitch after defeat against Otago during the 2017 Lions series. Later in the tour he would play an integral part in a historic series draw with the All Blacks 

Seek honesty, listen wisely

Maintaining focus on the wider task is key to how Farrell deals with challenges during a game. But the best way to learn from setbacks is away from the heat of battle. “When you’re in the middle of performing, emotions can sometimes make you feel differently about things,” he says. “For me, it’s good to take a step back. It allows you to match up your feelings with facts, by seeing it later on and having a good think about what you could have done better.”  
 
That includes conversations with his harshest critics. “I have found you have to be mature off the field, you need to learn from conversations with people who have been there and have the experience,” he says. “Finding out something new, and getting that feeling when it clicks, is what really excites me. I’m lucky to have been around some brilliant people for that.
 
“It’s great to pick other people’s brains to check you’re not mad and you’re not thinking something completely different,” he continues. “There are times when you think one thing and someone tells you: ‘No, it’s this,’ and you go: ‘Yes, fair play, you’re right.’ That is always a brilliant thing.”

Be your own harshest critic

While that external view is critical to his development, Farrell places an equal importance on evaluating his own decisions honestly. “Self-reflection is very important to me,” he says.
 
He refuses to dwell too much on past performances, but every setback can be a powerful tool to shape future improvements. “I don’t think negativity and self-doubt creeps in after one bad performance,” he says. “If you go through a period where results have not been as good as they could be, you try to logically think why. You try and figure out how you might be able to improve on what you’ve done. 
 
“With games coming at you every week, there’s no time to sit there and feel sorry for yourself. It’s all about what you can do next. And remember,” he adds, “you’re probably never as bad or as good as everyone else talks about.” 
Owen Farrell lining up a kick
‘For me, it’s good to take a step back. It allows you to match up your feelings with facts, by seeing it later on and having a good think about what you could have done better.’

Owen Farrell, England Rugby Captain

Perfection is always one more step

Setbacks, then, are harsh and compelling tutors. “When you get beaten, it can make you more open and honest to big changes, and you can’t wait to play next time to put things right,” says Farrell.
 
“There are always good things to come out of a poor performance. I try to highlight the ones that are going to take me forward and address them, then you can start thinking logically to fix things. The challenge is a part of the enjoyment. That is something that you’ll feel especially after losses. You know that things sometimes do go wrong and you can’t wait to put the work in and to come out the other side of it.”
 
The flip-side is that identifying areas for improvement after matches with a positive result are actually harder to come by. “But it doesn’t have to be a loss that teaches you, it may just be that you hadn’t finished things off the way you wanted,” Farrell says.
 
That’s particularly true in teams, where a positive collective outcome can still contain lessons for individuals or around particular moments. 
 
Channelling that openness and honesty into evaluating even the best result takes you one tantalising step closer to perfection – even if there’s always something else to improve. “As soon as you get a team who constantly wants to do that, then it’s a pretty special thing.”