Team GB Cycling and the magic of marginal gains

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Over the summer I developed a bit of an obsession with Team GB Cycling, like a lot of people.

How did they become so successful? So successful that the game for a lot of the other athletes became how to stop Team GB winning, the spiteful whelps

Dave Brailsford cuts an interesting figure as a leader and is a good place to start trying to answer that question. Look at his obsession with detail, but resistance to becoming a micromanager.  His philosophy was – and is –  ask: “how do we get people to be the best that they can be?”, and then apply the answer to cycling.

It meant psychiatrists on the team to help people deal with their inner demons of anxiety and fear, it meant having the whole team live near the training centre in Manchester.

As I was reminded by a tweet from Tom Hulme today, and as my business partner and cycling obsessive Jason Ryan always tells me, success was also an outcome of a pursuit of marginal gains – lots of tiny advantagess, that all add up to a winning margin. Tom tweeted a link to this Independent article from August:

Back in Beijing, GB’s studied, indepth accumulation of minuscule advantages over their rivals – some as simple as never using an Olympic courtesy bus to avoid possible infections or made-to-measure shoes with custom-made soles – was a huge innovation, and it unleashed something of a marginal gains “war”.

In fact, the team has a “Head of Marginal Gains”, Matt Parker. Quoted in the Independent…

“It’s a unique thing about the 2012 Olympics,” Parker says. ” We noticed a year ago there was an hour between the semi-finals and finals [in the pursuit] so one of the projects has been: how do we maximise recovery in that time?

“And if you look at all the teams’ data, we’re the only ones that went faster in the final of the women’s team pursuit than in the semi-finals.”

Everything from heating hotpants to avoid stressing muscles to advanced design of bikes is looked at:

[He] runs a team of 15 Marginal Gains specialists, ranging from experts in biomechanics to nutrition to physiotherapy, so far 28 major projects have been completed in the last two and a half years. Some, like the work they will do on bikes and kit, last up to four years – a full Olympic cycle, whilst others, like athlete development, stretch out of sight of London, time-wise.

Parker says the job is “straightforward and common-sense”.

Common-sense. Easier said than done, but common-sense applied relentlessly and perfectly, though, turns out to be powerful strategy.

: : Bonus link: Team GB Cycling’s psychiatrist, Dr Steve Peters wrote a book called The Chimp Paradox about his approach – it’s one of my favourite books of the year and highly recommended.

Image: British Cycling UK