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How 1% Performance Improvements Led to Olympic Gold

How 1% Performance Improvements Led to Olympic Gold

Wouldn’t you be shell shocked if a country who never lifted the trophy before, dominated the Football World Cup multiple times in the next decade? You would least expect that because such drastic changes rarely happen. But that’s exactly what this coach did.

Until early 2000, British cycling had only won one gold medal in over 100 years. The sole gold medal they won dated way back to the year 1908. Winning a gold medal was never even an expectation from the team. The occasional silver seemed like a huge feather in the cap.

In fact, the performance of the team was so poor that one bike manufacturer was hesitant to sell their product to the British cycling team. The seller believed it might impact their sales due to the negative impression.

But, in a turn of events, from the year 2008, the same team went on to dominate world cycling. Not only did they bag the most gold medals, but they also went on to shatter Olympic and World records. They even won the coveted Tour De France like it was a piece of cake.

How did a team with no past success suddenly transform into a champion team in a decade? Here is the story of the man and his technique which led to making the impossible possible.

In 2003, Dave Brailsford took over as the performance director of British cycling. At that point, little did anyone know that this man would take world cycling by the storm in the years to come.

The coach had a simple strategy, “If you break down every little aspect of cycling and improve each by 1%, the final result would be significantly different.” As simple as the technique sounds, the difference was in how Brailsford introduced improvements.

The marginal gains the British team worked on

Any new coach brings in changes for improvement. Brailsford was neither the first nor will be the last in that regard. The simple changes included better seats, better grip on the tires and the measurement of individual performance of the riders.

Most coaches would stop at that and hope for a big change in results while looking at the stopwatch. For positive results, everyone raises their hands in jubilation and if poor results follow, team members pull their hair in despair. 

But Brailsford had bigger things in mind. He urged the whole team to keep looking for incremental gains. As a result, the team experimented some more.

The cyclists used indoor suits for outdoor races because the lighter weight improved aerodynamics. The physios measured how well each team member was responding to a workout.

Like the gladiator who refused to stop, Brailsford and the team kept prodding ahead.

The team analysed the power with which the prior winning teams took off the line. The best member to achieve or beat this benchmark trained specifically for giving the perfect start.

The performance crew measured the statistics of each member and tabulated the values against the numbers expected. The team had to replace a few team members who could not meet the desired result. Brailsford mentioned, they made tough decisions as compassionate as possible.

These changes did not start yielding results right-away. Though the team won a few medals in the 2004 Olympics, the difference was too subtle to deserve any major applause. A few years passed by and other countries noticed Britain improving but no one could predict what the team was about to achieve.

In 2008, Britain won 8 Gold medals while France at second could manage only 2. The brits won 8 Gold medals again in the 2012 Olympics when no other country could bag more than one gold. If that was not considered bossing over the rest, they also went on to clock 7 world records and 9 Olympic records.

The juggernaut kept rolling. No British cyclist had ever won a Tour De France before. In 2012, the team changed history by prevailing as the winners. By 2018, the team won the title 5 out of 6 times.

In a decade, a team that was written off before any cycling event was on an unstoppable record-breaking and championship-winning spree. 

How Dave Brailsford applied the marginal gains method

The coach created history by taking his time to incorporate the 1% better method, also called the marginal gains technique. The procedure is simple on paper. You just have to do a little better with time.

The 1% does not state a precise number measured as a figure. All it means is, you must focus on doing something better than what you did before. In other cultures, the same technique is called continuous improvement or Kaizen, a Sino-Japanese word for improvement.

How most people try to achieve results

You might have a habit of expecting results as per the sequence above. You try your hand at something, wait for results, try some more, notice no results and give up. But the British cycling team kept improving even when they saw no results. That is where the key difference lies – continuous improvement even the results do not show up.

How Dave Brailsford tried to achieve results

Brailsford was well aware that the results would take time to arrive. All his team needed to do was persist until the power of tiny gains showed up with flying colours. 

As per 1% better technique, you must keep improving without expecting results. Over time, the improvement produces a compound effect placing you in a different league altogether. 

But the normal tendency is to overlook the simple improvements as insignificant. You presume the change or action to be too simple to make an impact.


But what is simple to do is simpler to not do. And that is what usually happens with most.

People end up hunting for huge gains in one go while ignoring the minor tweaks which would produce results over time. The marginal gains technique approaches improvement like a marathon, not a sprint. It’s not about running with all your energy in a short burst but having the patience and stamina to keep going for the long haul.

“Forget about perfection; focus on progression and compound the improvement. They’re tiny things but if you clump them together, they make a big difference.”
Dave Brailsford

The returns from marginal gains follow a trajectory like shown below. Assume you improve a little every day while your friend adds a little to his laziness at the same pace. Initially, the changes seem like nothing.

All your effort looks to be going down the drain. You might consider is the effort even worth it because the other person seems no different than you.

But wait for it, the effect of the tiny improvements will arrive outstandingly. Sure, it can take a year or two but when you’ll know when you get there. The difference will widen if the other person worsens a little each day.

The technique works for any area in life like education, career, sales, programming, leadership, financial returns or anything under the sun.

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