Marginal Gains – The Secrets of Team GB Cycling and Other Expressions of Greatness

by Dan

 From an article by Dan Byrne, shared via The Simplify Guy

Watching coverage of the 2012 Olympics, from the comfort of my living room, it was hard not to be completely blown away by the performance of the British cycling team.  Whether it be the ladies road race, the men’s time trial, or the many events in the velodrome, the British team were incredible.  As the commentators effused over the team’s performance, they hailed Performance Director Dave Brailsford as a kind of demi-god.  He was the man that took British cycling into the big league, and has continued to take them to even greater heights, year after year.  The commentators talked about his “Secret Squirrel Club” and “the aggregation of marginal gains” as being the lynchpins of his strategy.

Now, anyone who has been following my blog will be aware that I am a big believer in the concept of daily disciplines compounding over time to create great success.  Indeed, the fact that I decided to perform one single Daily Act of Simplification each and every day was for precisely this reason, and it has had profound results.  I have also described a book called The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson as being my favourite description of this wisdom in a published format.  This “aggregation of marginal gains” sounds kind of similar doesn’t it?  I decided to look into it further. 

In Brailsford’s own words:


 “We’ve got this saying, ‘performance by the aggregation of marginal gains’. It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in everything you do. That’s what we try to do from the mechanics upwards.

“If a mechanic sticks a tyre on, and someone comes along and says it could be done better, it’s not an insult – it’s because we are always striving for improvement, for those 1% gains, in absolutely every single thing we do.”

The fact that Dave Brailsford talks about a percentage figure, the “1% margin for improvement in everything you do”, means that I think this can be put even more powerfully.  “Aggregation” suggests adding up (1+1+1), but a percentage improvement of 1% each time is actually a compounding effect.

We understand the concept of compound interest.  If you put £100 in a bank account which pays 3% interest a year, at the end of year 1 you would have £103.  If you simply added another £3 each year, then after 100 years you would have £400.  However, compounding 3% each year means that after 100 years you have £1922.  Each year the 3% represents an increasingly larger number.  Some wealth creation gurus describe compound interest as “The 8th Wonder of The World” for this reason.

In The Slight Edge, Olson uses this concept to describe the difference between success and failure.  In short, the premise is that by compounding the effect of simple disciplines, performed every day, you can achieve great success. Instead, most people compound the effect of simple errors in judgment each day, and that is why they fail. The simple discipline is easy to do, but the error in judgment is just a tiny bit easier, hence the path of least resistance is the route to failure.  Olson says that the sure-fire way to double your results in one year is to improve them by 0.3% every day. The diagram below shows the associated success curve and failure curve: 


See how the two curves look very similar for a while, then after a time they rapidly diverge.  One of the many powerful examples Olson uses is healthy eating. For your lunch each day you can choose to eat a cheeseburger, or you could choose a salad. It’s not hard to choose the salad, but the cheeseburger is just that bit more tempting and hence the easier choice. Today, the impact of that choice is barely noticeable. You won’t put on or lose any weight, and you won’t be any healthier or unhealthier as a result of choosing one or the other. But…if you make that same choice every day for a month you will notice a significant difference. After a year, the effects may not be reversible. Success and failure in your health can be dictated by a small daily choice.

Success guru Jim Rohn also supports this theory in his quote:

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

You’ll probably agree that none of this is earth-shattering in concept, but it is true that unfortunately common sense isn’t common practice.  That is why great performance is so rare.

So, how does this theory become practice?  Well firstly you need the relentless, unwavering desire to improve.  There are no days off, there is no “I’ll do it tomorrow”.  You must have the steely will to make the right choice NOW.  Another British Olympic legend, Daley Thompson, demonstrated this by training even on Christmas Day:


“I used to train on Christmas Day because I knew my rival wasn’t.”

Returning to our compound interest example above, if you failed to add your 3% interest in year 10 but did so religiously on all of the other 99 years, then instead of having £1922 you would only have £1866.  If you translate that back into athletic performance, that is a very real difference, and a very expensive day off.  By training on Christmas Day and bagging his performance gain (3%, 1%, 0.003%, whatever it was), Daley Thompson got a jump on his rivals.

The second thing you need is a mechanism to find and implement those improvements.  For Daley Thompson it was getting out there, building the body and honing the skills.  For Dave Brailsford he has his “Secret Squirrel Club” – a team who scour the cutting edge of sports, science, military etc. and share their secrets to continuously find their next 1%.  The Japanese call the concept we are talking about here “kaizen”, and have built this into the philosophy of many of their companies.  The most famous example is Toyota who went from a company who couldn’t compete outside of their own shores to the world’s largest automaker in the space of 50 years.  Their “Toyota Production System” allowed employees to drive out continuous improvements by empowering them to stop the production line and implement kaizen in the live environment.  Their methodology is now copied by many businesses worldwide.  It seldom works as well though, because few can keep up the relentless daily disciplines for long.  You can copy the method, but without that first ingredient, it counts for nothing.  As Olson shows, the bad habit is the slightly easier choice.  It takes a lot of discipline to take the small steps every day, and a lot of faith to know that the success curve awaits you if you do.

It is this combination of will, faith, knowledge and resources that Dave Brailsford has leveraged to such great effect.  It is the philosophy and the methodology of champions.  When it all comes together it creates pure magic, a spectacle which the outside observer can only marvel at.  But like the conjurer’s craft, that spectacle is created by real people with ambition, drive, and the refusal to take the easy path.

I leave you with a transcript of the famous “Inches” speech by Al Pacino in the movie “Any Given Sunday”, about the fortunes of an American Football team, which I think is relevant.  Thanks for reading!


“I don’t know what to say really.
Three minutes to the biggest battle of our professional lives all comes down to today.
Either we heal as a team or we are going to crumble.
Inch by inch, play by play till we’re finished.
We are in hell right now, gentlemen believe me and we can stay here and get the s**t kicked out of us or we can fight our way back into the light.
We can climb out of hell.
One inch, at a time.

Now I can’t do it for you.
I’m too old.
I look around and I see these young faces and I think
I mean
I made every wrong choice a middle age man could make.
I uh…. I p****d away all my money believe it or not.
I chased off anyone who has ever loved me.
And lately, I can’t even stand the face I see in the mirror.

You know when you get old in life things get taken from you.
That’s, that’s part of life.
But, you only learn that when you start losing stuff.
You find out that life is just a game of inches.
So is football.
Because in either game life or football the margin for error is so small.
I mean one half step too late or too early you don’t quite make it.
One half second too slow or too fast and you don’t quite catch it.
The inches we need are everywhere around us.
They are in every break of the game every minute, every second.

On this team, we fight for that inch
On this team, we tear ourselves, and everyone around us to pieces for that inch.
We CLAW with our finger nails for that inch.
Cause we know when we add up all those inches that’s going to make the f*****g difference between WINNING and LOSING, between LIVING and DYING.

I’ll tell you this in any fight it is the guy who is willing to die who is going to win that inch.
And I know if I am going to have any life anymore it is because, I am still willing to fight, and die for that inch because that is what LIVING is.
The six inches in front of your face.

Now I can’t make you do it.
You gotta look at the guy next to you.
Look into his eyes.
Now I think you are going to see a guy who will go that inch with you.
You are going to see a guy who will sacrifice himself for this team because he knows when it comes down to it, you are gonna do the same thing for him.

That’s a team, gentlemen and either we heal now, as a team, or we will die as individuals.
That’s football guys.
That’s all it is.
Now, what you gonna do?”