This week Irish boxing lost Billy Walsh, the key man in the success of the Irish boxing team over the past ten years. The story of Irish boxing is something akin to David and Goliath. It’s such a brilliant tale, and in the context of the economic recovery, it is a salutary lesson for every small business. So let’s tell the story.
Did you know that the Irish boxing team is, per capita, the most successful sports team in the world? Over the past ten years in the Olympics, the World Championships, the European Championships and the new EU Championships, this team has won 57 gold medals, 49 silver medals and 96 bronze medals.
In the London Olympics this team came fifth in the overall medals’ table. This team, from a tiny country with a population of four million, won more medals than the Chinese with its population of 1.7 billion, or Olympic giant America, with its 300 million plus population.
How did it do it? Let’s look at this through the prism of business. How can small business replicate the boxers’ accomplishment against the giants in your sector? How can your business similarly compete?
Under the guidance of head coach Billy Walsh and his Georgian accomplice Zaur Antia, the “high performance” unit made sure that the Irish boxing team has achieved remarkable results.
This feat in the past decade is made all the more remarkable in light of the fact that in 2002 the Sports Council was about to remove all funding from boxing because our performance had been so poor.
Walsh – himself a former boxer who had reached the final eight in the World Championships and knew what is was like to lose – took over and transformed Irish boxing.
So why, in the year before Walsh took up the challenge at the European Championships, all Irish boxers were beaten in the first round and now, ten years later, it’s the most successful per capita boxing team in the world?
This is the story of belief, focus and discipline. It is also about convincing people that they can compete at the highest level. It is a story of how little wins, lead to big wins and how, with the right training, preparation and intensity, the little guy can beat the big guy.
It is a brilliant lesson for all small businesses about how the dominant player’s very strength might be his weakness and if a new, small business or start-up is disciplined enough it can win unexpected market share.
On taking up the challenge, the first thing Walsh did was to take the Irish team to Russia to see how the best did it. Russia has long been the most successful boxing nation on earth. In 2003, when the Irish team went to the Russian training camp, they were slaughtered tactically, physically, psychologically and emotionally. So much so that the Russians regarded the Irish as a bit of joke.
Walsh took the team home, tore up their training schedule and copied what he saw in Russia. He copied how they trained, what they ate, when they rested, and he asked the boxers for total commitment.
The regime was so tough that in the first year he lost half the squad, but those who stayed got fitter, stronger, more confident and then started to win medals. In the past, an Irish boxer would fear being drawn against an existing European medal holder and the fight was lost in his head before he stepped into the ring, but the little (and then bigger) wins meant this inferiority complex changed.
Why would you fear being drawn against a European medal holder when you were sparring with one every day?
By 2013, after success in the Beijing and London Olympics, in the European Championship, Ireland came second to Russia. A true measure of success is that the team is now banned from training in Russia on the orders of the Russian Boxing Federation. The Russians – with a population of 145 million people – now regard the Irish team as a threat to them.
The high performance unit led by Walsh set about overturning conventional wisdom. It took ideas and methods from the best and customised them to suit the Irish way of fighting. Every boxing culture has a different set of challenges, in the same way as every small business has its own way of doing things.
The Irish boxers changed their training schedule, realising that it wasn’t good enough to keep doing what they’d been doing for years. The trainers set about measuring everything from heart rate, to footwork, punch rate to number of combinations, diet, emotional stability and ultimately the boxers’ own belief. Did they want it enough?
Once the regime was right, and the Irish were benchmarked against the best in the world, the trainers could assess whether they were ready. By 2009, they were ready. Since then, the medals and successes have flowed. Some 202 medals have been won by Irish boxers from schoolboy/girl up, in international championships since 2003, culminating in Katie Taylor’s London victory.
Who says David can’t beat Goliath?
All of us in business have moments when we are faced with a competitor that is bigger, stronger, fitter, cleverer and much better resourced than we are. Often our response to this challenge is to withdraw and conclude that we can’t win and that even dreaming of taking on this competitor is folly.
But every business competitor is beatable; every challenger has something special and, if we work hard enough, prepare meticulously enough and adopt the discipline and focus of the best, there is no reason we can’t be the best too.
Every competitor has a weakness and sometimes, as happened with David and Goliath, the giant is at his weakest when everything seems to be going his way.
The story of Billy Walsh and Irish boxing is the story of winning against the odds, and it could be the template for every small business in the country.