Tom Ding writes:

At risk of sounding like a Christmas quiz, what do the pictures have in common? Answer: they all relate to the summer success of the British Olympic Cycling Team, marked so emphatically last Sunday when the cycling squad kept on winning, cleaning up all three main prizes at the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Awards. (GB Cycling won team of the Year, Chris Hoy was voted Sports Personality of the Year, while Performance Director Dave Brailsford became Coach of the Year.)

As it happens, a couple of weeks earlier a few of us here at The Futures Company were fortunate enough to see Dave Brailsford speak. The evening was fascinating from start to finish, but four things stood out for me:

Only wanting half (Slim Pret)
When Brailsford first received lottery funding he was given a fixed budget to be split between forty athletes. He responded by saying that he would like all the money, but that he only had half that number of world-class (and potentially medal-winning) cyclists, and that he would split the cash between them instead. His belief that each of these athletes was a champion in the making allowed him to put them in charge of their own training regimes (marginalising some coaches in the process), and insist that internal targets would be emasured against controllable variables such as acceleration and time (the medals would take care of themselves). The single-mindedness of this approach seemed remarkable.

I have heard of sportsmen relying on ‘mental boxes’ and ‘triggers’ to control emotion before, but not of a whole team adopting a common approach and language. Brailsford employed a psychiatrist to work with the squad and together they developed the notion of the ‘chimp’ – a codeword for any sort of emotional barrier or mental block. Each cyclist’s ‘chimp’ is personal and different, and the techniques they use to control it are their own, yet critically, it is also accepted that they all have one. In this way, trackside arguments and training failures could be put down to ‘the inner monkey’ and brushed aside.

Door Handles
The concept of ‘aggregating marginal gains’ in sport has also been seen before, but it has never been employed with such conviction: sure, British Cycling hired  Formula One engineers to model the aerodynamics of helmets and bikes, but Brailsford also had someone to continuously clean the door handles in the Olympic village lest germs should get into the camp.

Al Pacino
After hearing one of the very best coaches in the world reveal the extraordinary measures it takes to be the best, there was one piece of comfort for this less accomplished sportsman: it is good to know that even the most successful team in the country use this speech from Any Given Sunday to motivate themselves before the big day. At least my rugby team has been doing something right.

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