Sir Dave Brailsford is famed for transforming the prospects of British cycling. Prior to 2000 Britain had won only 1 Olympic medal, but today his team includes some of the most celebrated and awarded individuals within the sport such as Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and Chris Froome.
Brailsford’s story is an interesting one. After studying sports science, he moved to France from North Wales intent on becoming a cycling champion. As he now bashfully admits, he is a “distinctly average cyclist” who to this day has “never won a bike race”. With his own prospects of sporting glory parked, at least temporarily, Brailsford returned to the UK and completed an MBA at Sheffield Business School (he wryly notes that “everyone did an MBA back then, it was the done thing”) before starting at British Cycling in 1997.
His business background gives him an interesting perspective on coaching within sport, understanding where the two industries can learn from one another. Second to his success first with British Cycling and then Team Sky, Brailsford is perhaps next best known for bringing the concept of ‘marginal gains’ to the sporting world – with resounding success. Brailsford says of marginal gains that ‘The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together’. In action, this means that transformational change is achieved through small, ongoing efficiencies. No matter how small the potential improvement it can and will be achieved, with riders proactively making small changes every day.
For his cyclists, this starts as having ‘the dream’ – what they would like to happen, for example winning an Olympic Gold medal. Then, targets are set – what they can impact and achieve to work towards the dream. This approach emphasises the importance of ongoing progression rather than being focused on one end result. Brailsford passionately differentiates between process and outcome: FORGET THE RESULT. Instead, focus on performing well in the moment. Don’t be hijacked by the ‘what might happen’, focus on what is actually happening. Similarly, Brailsford says that part of the success of marginal gains lies in its sense of ongoing improvement. It’s important to have belief from your team, and everyone can believe in the statement that “we are capable of getting better”. People like the sense of progress, no matter how small.
And what is the role of the coach, or manager, in all this? In Brailsford’s opinion, strong leadership is not about telling people what to do. Instead, it’s about empathy, “seeing the world through someone else’s eyes” in order to understand what environment or approach is going to work best for them. As he aptly sums up, “All I can ever do is help someone else be as good as they can be”.