What British Cycling Actually Teaches Us about Performance and Innovation
Team A: Renowned for its level of detail. They tested everything. What massage gel to use, what warm-up outfit, the type of mattress and pillow the athlete slept on. They obsessed over the minutia.
Team B: Their head coach said he never read a book in his life. The team doctor took shoddy notes, losing vital information on medication and athlete health. They were a disorganized mess, with the head of program, coach, doctor, and more giving contradicting stories on critical medical data, where athletes were, and more. When caught ordering a PED, they couldn’t even get their story straight on how it got in their hands.
It doesn’t take much of a jump to assume that Team A would be the professional one. The team dominating the ranks and setting the standard. We’d expect Team B to be lagging behind, a clear demonstration of lack of leadership and culture.
But what if they are the same team?
For a long time, we’ve been sold a certain picture of the success of British Cycling and Team Sky. A rising from the doldrums of the sport to conquering the most prestigious races in the world. How did they do it? Not through nefarious means, but through taking a revolutionary scientific approach. The cult of “marginal gains”, of meticulously improving on all the 1% items to bring performance to a level unheard of.
The appearance versus reality of many high performance groups is often a world apart. There’s a mismatch between what actually goes on and the perception of what goes on. The latter is much easier to craft than the former.
With success, we demand explanations. We craft stories to justify why what we saw was real. Why performances might jump through the roof, why a team was able to win the championship. Sometimes, those stories hold water. A different approach to training, a revolution in statistical analysis, a change in culture. But other times, the stories are created with little bearing to reality. They are what we expect. What we want to see. Grand theories like ‘marginal gains’ that seem intuitively plausible on the surface but upon any deeper dive fall apart. Long explanations of training breakthroughs or biomechanical adjustments, which under examination make little sense. We bite on the idea that fluffing pillows must be the secret to success, with journalists pitching soon to be best-selling books around such pleasant ideas.
But what we often fail to realize is that we’re doing damage by propagating theories. When we get it wrong and tout a coach, team, or system as cutting-edge when that is simply a placeholder hiding a seedy underbelly, it validates that group or coach. It pushes copycat programs, convinces organizations and those in power that this is the way. It gives permission for athletes to join those programs, and it pushes shotty ideas to the forefront of business and sport. We start applying ‘marginal gains’ concepts in the business world and in healthcare and medicine.
I’ve been in and around professional sports for my adult life. I’ve been fortunate (or in some cases unfortunate) enough to get a peek behind the curtain in a slew of Olympic sports and more recently professional teams from the major sports. And while the majority of this piece has focused on those that have created the façade of a performance group, I’m happy to report there are teams and groups that actually do create such an environment.
But what I’ve noticed is there’s a clear difference between those who actually do it and those who create the façade. The ones who aren’t smoke and mirrors, but actual substance, take the long view. They don’t jump at each and every short cut or fad of the minute, they create an environment and culture built on long-term performance. One that sometimes has to take time. One where health and well-being are taken into account. One where they treat athletes as actual people instead of cogs in the machine.
If you’ve paid attention to the British Cycling/Team Sky drama, we’ve witnessed a clashing of reality and appearance. The appearance was of a cutting edge team. One at the forefront of innovation that was doing everything better than just about anyone else on the planet. It’s hard to square that with what we know now. A team filled with bumbling individuals who can’t keep records, can’t keep their story straight, and admit to never reading books.
How do we reconcile the two? I’ll leave that up to the reader to decide, but it points that when it comes to convenient narratives, our skepticism antennas need to go up.
For high performance anything, we need to realize we have BS vendors in every field who sell a good story. But as you evaluate whether appearances match with reality, do the hard work. From my experience, the BS vendors share some commonalities:
- Promise the world or that they have a secret.
- Claim that their system is much better than any other teams.
- Focus on the short-term, overly results-driven without recognizing reality
- Let their ego drive the ship. They want to be known as the success story, the innovator.
- Take credit and deflect blame.
- Create an environment that feigns openness to the public, but is actually secretive and insulated.
Finally, here’s a call to those in high performance sport, to the journalist covering the teams: Do your due diligence. It’s easy to be wowed by shiny objects, expensive equipment, and fancy-sounding jargon. To buy into the corporate message that they are innovators. But what matters is what’s underneath that. Is it all a façade designed to craft the story? Or is it real?
Real high performance takes time. There are no short cuts.
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