Marginal gains – what can we learn from Team GB?

Iced Matcha with Rosemary Tonic
August 6, 2016
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August 29, 2016

Marginal gains – what can we learn from Team GB?

 Much has been said about Team GB’s success in Rio 2016. The concept of marginal gains leads the race as the primary driver of success – how can we apply their methods elsewhere in life and business?


The concept of marginal gains has been used in F1 and other sports like Rugby for some time thanks to inspired leaders such as Sir Clive Woodward who have taken a different approach to coaching. In cycling the application of the idea is fairly new having been introduced in 2010 by Dave Brailsford who was appointed to run the newly formed TeamSky. At this point in time no British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France.

The concept of marginal gains is simple – it strives to find small, even 1% improvements in everything that an athlete does, on the understanding that the aggregation of many small marginal gains will result in a significantly improved performance that far outweighs the apparently small gains at an individual level (i.e. 1+1 = much more than 2!).

GB cycling left no stone un-turned when applying this concept:

– A specialist was brought in to establish the most appropriate pillow for each athlete to improve sleep. This pillow is taken to all of the hotels that the athletes stay in

– Ergonomics of the bike seat were interrogated to improve comfort and enduruance

– Weight and design of the tyres were studied and re-designed

– The ‘secret squirrel club’ was set up with partners like Maclaren to test every element of aerodynamics

– Psychiatrists were appointed to improve the athletes emotional and psychological resilience

By applying these gains and many others not released by UK Sport Dave Brailsford believed a UK cyclist could win the Tour de France in 5 years…they achieved it in 3. In 2012 Sir Bradley Wiggins became the first Brit to win the Tour de France, a year when Team GB won 70% of the gold medals available to them at the Olympics. Perhaps even more astonishingly, a British cyclist, Chris Froome, won the Tour de France again in 2013.

The success has continued and the system in place has enabled every mmeber of the 14 strong GB cyscling team to leave Rio with a medal (19 medals total), firmly placing GB as the dominant global force in cycling, just 6 years on from 2010 when we were no-where to be seen. To put it in context, the closest nation to GB in cycling at Rio was Holland with 2 medals.

So what can we learn? For sport, business or creative projects:

Focus on systems, not goals.

What’s the difference between goals and systems?

If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.

Credit to James Clear for this simple explanation on building a system:

1.Prioritise and decode what you want to win

2.Figure out what it will take you to win

3.Work back from what you want to win and where you are today

4.Create a plan to close the gap


In summary, we overestimate value of single, large decisions and underestimate value of making better decisions on a daily basis. To begin with there is no difference between decisions with 1% improvement or decline, but over time these differences compound and gap becomes significant.

We do not need to wait to find productivity gains, there are hundreds of small gains at our fingertips right now…

“Success is a few simple disciplines practised every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated everyday.” Jim Rohn

How will you change your systems?