The British Olympic cycling team and Team Sky’s cycling team have demonstrated phenomenal success over the last decade. Dave Brailsford is heralded as the man who orchestrated this performance. His concept of marginal gains is one that it is tempting to apply to all sports. But can it work everywhere?
The doctrine of marginal gains states that in any area of a given sport – no matter how small or apparently insignificant – you should look to make all possible improvements. Take cycling: the rider, the bike, the nutrition, the planning, the recovery, the training, the statistical analysis, the list goes on (clearly). If you pay attention to the minutiae in all of these areas, the combined advantage will make the difference over your rivals. Take the evidence of Brailsford’s teams and it is tempting to copy his practice. However, the concept may be inappropriate or at least inappropriately implemented in other sports.
Take cricket as an example. Andy Flower’s England side was also extremely successful – for a time. He appeared to take a similarly intensive attitude towards preparation. England cricketers worked not only on the obvious skills, but on everything they considered at all relevant to performance. After a time the team’s performances significantly declined. Jonathan Trott went home from an Ashes tour with what later appeared to be psychological burnout, and Darren Lehmann’s Australia thrashed England with a laid back coaching approach. Were some of the England team’s marginal gains counterproductive?
Cycling requires the athlete to perform occasionally at a top peak of performance, 1 World Championships a year, 1 Olympics every 4 years. This leaves space for psychologically and physically draining training that they then have time to recuperate from. They also perform in a sport decided mostly by their physiology. Cricket on the other hand is far more skill-orientated and requires consistent performances throughout the year. Batting in particular requires sustained concentration, likely to be easiest in a relaxed mind. Look at the drops in form that batsmen often suffer: the harder they try the worse it can be. Training intensively for fitness may help gain that 5% speed between the wickets that is a marginal gain, but does it drain the batsman psychology to a degree that is detrimental? If Jonathan Trott’s natural mentality is one in which he invests heavy psychological energies in everything he does, then he may be liable to burn out if asked to commit even more attention to all aspects of his game. The marginal gains philosophy may in fact make him a poorer player. This argument does not undermine marginal gains as an approach; it just highlights the need to be considerate of the areas that are of the highest priority to make those gains.
Again we come to the position that all sports, people and actions need to be considered on their individual merits. Blanket theories or ‘one size fits all’ policies are unlikely to bring the best results.