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Can Teams Apply GB Cycling’s ‘Marginal Gains’ Approach to Enhance Performance?

Filed in Blog by Tracey Davison on 790 - 0 Comments

enhance team performance - Leadership Blog

In our last blog post Exceptional Coaching = Exceptional Performance…just ask Andy Murray, we asked whether the principals of sports coaching can be applied to business.  Extending this theme, we look at one of the most successful sports teams in history; the GB Cycling Team and examine whether or not their “marginal gains” approach is one that could be applied to business, with the same level of success, to enhance team performance.

There are few who need reminding of the outstanding performance exhibited by the Team GB Cyclists at London 2012, or by Bradley Wiggins in the 2012 Tour de France.  Even as we speak, GB cyclist Chris Froome is celebrating his win of this year’s Tour de France.  This phenomenal success has come about as a result of the “marginal gains” approach adopted by the team.  But what is it?  During the Olympics last year, Team GB Performance Director, David Brailsford explained:

“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.  There’s fitness and conditioning, of course, but there are other things that might seem on the periphery, like sleeping in the right position, having the same pillow when you are away and training in different places…They’re tiny things but if you clump them together it makes a big difference.”

For those looking to employ this highly effective approach to enhance team performance, there are three key aspects which are critical to it’s success:

1.  Recognise there’s always room for improvement.  Summing this up perfectly in an article last August on the BBC’s website sports pages, Matt Slater wrote “There is no arrogance at British Cycling; they know they can do better.”  It would be easy, when you’re the best in the world, to get complacent, but the GB Cycling team do not and that is exactly why they are the best in the world.  They know, however fast their times, however many medals are in their cabinet, they can always be faster, be better.  In the same article, Sir Chris Hoy, six-times Olympic gold medalist was quoted as saying:
“It’s hard to explain what makes the team so special…It’s all of it, the science, the training, the coaches, but most of all we point the mirror at ourselves and ask ‘how can we get better?”

2. Strategy and Execution of that Strategy.  The Marginal Gains approach is dependent on the basics first being in place.  In a cycling team, that includes fitness and nutrition, but critically, it means having a clearly defined strategy and a detailed plan in place of how to achieve it.  The Marginal Gains approach is then applied to every aspect of the execution of that strategy.  By breaking down your plan into very detailed, individual steps, you can then look at all of the factors influencing the completion of those steps.  The thing that makes the GB Cycling team stand out above others is their ability to look beyond the usual.  How somebody washes their hands and which pillow they sleep on may seem initially trivial, but when you start to consider how a bad night’s sleep or stomach bug might impact an athlete’s training and performance, you begin to see how very important these things are.

3.  Discipline and Determination.  If you want to succeed in anything, there has to be a desire to do so.  Success takes hard work and without a strong desire to win, you will not be able to apply the discipline required to succeed.  The GB Cycling team clearly have this desire to win and to keep on improving and it’s this which drives them through the hard times, that provides them with the justification for the many sacrifices they have to make.

So can leaders apply the ‘marginal gains’ approach with their teams?

In short, yes.  Acknowledging that, despite your successes, there’s always room for improvement is perhaps the easiest of the steps.  In practical application, it might be useful to apply a ‘what we did well/what we could have done better’ approach to all projects and tasks, not just those which were not a success, as is so often the case.
When it comes to analysing the execution of your strategy, the difficulty may well lie in the level of detail you go into.  For Olympic athletes, major changes, such as the way they eat, sleep and the amount of time they spend with friends and family, may well be par for the course, but for most of us, there is a limit to the extent to which we will allow our work life to impact our personal life.  That said, there will still be very many changes that can be made.  Remember that the whole principal behind marginal gains is that a number of smaller changes will, collectively, bring about a significant improvement to performance.
When it comes to discipline and determination, creating a culture in which excellence is always the goal, must be your starting point.  We often define exceptional teams as being those that ‘everyone wants to join and nobody wants to leave’.  If you look at the statistics on the number of people who’ve taken up competitive cycling in the last couple of years, you’ll see what we mean.  The GB Cycling Team appear to have a kind of collective force, a passion for what they do and a strong will to win.  If you can create this kind of team spirit and passion in your team, then you’re well on your way to success!

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