Episode #81 – Valuable Lessons from Brailsford’s Performance Framework

Episode #81 – Valuable Lessons from Brailsford’s Performance Framework

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Another great performance framework to delve into. This time we learn lessons from Dave Brailsford of Team Great Briton and Team Sky. Covering everything from ensuring clarity to building ethics by sticking to your principles. Plenty of lessons here for the Semi-Pro.

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What is just as interesting to me though is the framework that the marginal gains fit in. See Dave Brailsford developed his approach around 15 key concepts, and marginal gains is just one of them. So I thought I’d take a deep dive into the 15 based on an article called: 15 Key Steps to Achieving Peak Performance by Prof David Denyer publish in a management magazine of all places.

1. Ensure Clarity

Brailsford attributes success to understanding what you are trying to win, being clear about the purpose, setting an outcome that everyone buys into and ensuring absolute clarity concerning roles, responsibilities, structure and tactics.

Goals. Straightforward right? But it’s more than that. It’s about everyone else as much as you. The other people that are helping you win – make sure they understand their role in helping you, and are moving in the same direction. Being clear in your role, and others’ sets an accurate level of expectations when starting out, and it’s something to fall back on when times get tough.

2. Create a “Podium Program”.

British Cycling aimed for medals, nothing less. Team Sky was equally bold – to win the Tour with a clean (drug-free) British rider within five years.

Race to win. This is certainly not for all cyclists all of the time. But there are times in your riding when you definately training and racing for the win. If this is you, being bold and relentless, that this is what you are aiming for will push you know that every minute of the day can in some way be dedicated towards this win. Like I said this is a little extreme, and harder to apply at the individual level. But saying this out loud is just as bold as setting the goal in the first place.

3. Plan backwards

Brailsford followed five key steps (i) prioritize and decide what you want to win because you can’t win everything (ii) figure out what it will take to win (iii) work back from what you want to win to where you are today (iv) create a plan to close the gap (v) execute.

Similar to Stephen Covey’s start with the end in mind. This is more a performance plan than anything else. A clear set of capabilities and instructions on how to become the best in your competition.

4. Focus on process

To ensure a win at the Beijing Olympics, it was calculated that an improvement in time from over four minutes to under three minutes 55 seconds was needed. The resulting ‘3-55 programme’ for the team was summarised in a video. In Beijing, the team executed 3-55 (which had become the norm in training) and won gold.

Your goal as a cyclist is to increase your speed. Your system or process is your training schedule for the month. Your focus is on the training you at doing at any one moment. If everything else is in place, meaning the right plan and program, then all you have to do is focus on the process, the daily training. Which through consistency adds up to be the significant factor in determining your success at your event.

5. Get back to basics

Tim Kerrison, Head of Performance Support argued for simplification saying “the rider who generates the most power, for the longest period of time, while weighing as little as possible, and slipping efficiently through the air, usually wins the race.” To win the Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins focused on altitude training, weight control and power output.

Sounds simple right? Well it kind of is, until you start putting it all together. A simplified understanding of what elements you need to improve will help sell the message, and crystallize in your mind what are the most important performance elements that make the difference in your event. This may not be up to you, but if you understand the basis of your training, then it will guide you through your training with purpose.

6. Practice winning

The top riders in Team Sky raced fewer days than their rivals and structured seasons to accommodate mid-season ‘training blocks’ in Tenerife. In 2012 purists argued that Wiggins had peaked too early in winning three week-long stage races prior to the Tour. Yet this was all part of the tactics. In those races the team trained to win by defending a lead.

How do you do this as a Semi-Pro? Sandbag? Easier said than done, but maybe it comes in the form of your first season peak at a smaller or less prestigious race. This is not only a confidence builder, but it practice in being in the right places at the right time. It’s learning how to emotionally respond to pressure, it’s easing you into the role of winning and being comfortable with it. It’s training for the main event – whatever that event may be.

7. Aggregate marginal gains

Focus on improving components that can significantly affect overall performance by just 1%. Examples included taking riders’ own mattresses and pillows to prevent neck and back problems and even training the team on how to wash their hands correctly to reduce the chance of infections.

We’re all aware of the famed ‘Marginal Gains’ method employed by British Cycling to dominate the world over the past 6 years or so. I’ve even covered my own broken version in Episode #8 called The Best 3 Marginal Gains for quick wins: https://semiprocycling.com/marginal-gains-quick-wins.

This idea alone probably killed some of cycling’s tradition. It’s funny that most teams probably employ some type of similar system today though.

8. Maximise the latest technologies

British Cycling had a small team known as the ‘secret squirrel club’ that was charged with finding technological innovations to boost rider performance. The team would search for ways to get marginal gains from using technological advances across sport, science, industry and the military. For example, riders benefited from electrically heated ‘hot pants’ as leg warmers that were inspired by Formula One’s tyre warmers.

Ok so you don’t have a ‘secret squirrel club’ of your own. Just look for the biggest performance ROI – and work your way down the list of products that will do this for you. Watch this space though because I plan on tackling this issue in a future episode.

9. Conduct the orchestra

This is how Brailsford describes his approach to strategic leadership. He commented: “I don’t coach the riders directly. I coach a team of people, including coaches to coach the riders”. Brailsford maintains that the most important members of the team are the riders, not the coaches or the management: “We talked about taking the crown off the head of the coach and putting it on the head of the rider. First and foremost, I work for the riders”

How does this translate to Semi-Pros? More ego for riders and less for coaches? It really is just a way for managers to think how they lead, where their focus is, and if it’s on the right elements. In  cycling team – it’s got to be the riders. End of story.

10. Support the support

Team Sky was the first professional team that offered dedicated one-to-one coaching to all its riders, deciding that the split of investment in riders versus support should be 80/20 rather than usual 90/10 split in pro cycling. “You’ll get more from a £900,000 rider with a coach than you would from a £1m rider without one” was Brailsford’s rationale.

This is all about making an investment in your own cycling. Spending more of your budget on training knowledge and guidance. It’s shifting the focus from thinking about yourself as a single unit, and looking at your support system, and knowledge as a complete package to unlocking your performance.

11. Charter a team

The British Cycling Team set its own “team rules” which included: respect one another, watch each other’s backs, be honest with one another, respect team equipment and be on time. They also had the following motivational motto on team clothing and printed on every bike:

This is the line.

The line between winning and losing.

Between failure and success.

Between good and great.

Between dreaming and believing.

Between convention and innovation.

Between head and heart.

It is a fine line.

It challenges everything we do.

And we ride it every day

I’m going to leave this one alone. If you are part of a team, obviously having team rules can help set expectations for everybody. Even though I think Sky’s rules are pretty much common decency – maybe it’s better to state them plainly than not at all.

12. Build a strong CORE

This was Brailsford’s acronym to explain how success would be achieved:

Commitment + Ownership + Responsibility = Excellence

This meant working only with people who have an intrinsic drive towards achieving a goal (commitment), people who take ownership of their training and development and responsibility for their performance.

This is the future of all coaching and performance relationships. No longer is a coach a dictator, but they need to listen to the feedback from the athlete. Under this model more responsibility shifts over to the rider – to own their training and feedback and use the coach as a tool to succeed.

13. Control the ‘chimp’

Brailsford that the best appointment i’ve ever made was Steve Peters a physiatrist Rampton high security hospital. Peter works with riders to pre-empt or control their ‘chimp’ – the emotional or irrational part of the brain, which has the potential to inhibit performance.

Mentioned already in episode #77 on confidence. Check out that episode for more. But basically know what your chimp does is every crucial scenario to do with your riding. This is not just racing mind you – it’s just as important in training.

14. Manage the triangle of change

To achieve change people must be a) committed to being better b) psychologically minded (think that they can change) c) suffering enough to engage with change. If the first two are in place, Brailsford argues, it is possible to achieve change by either increasing consequence or reward.

This one is hard to spot from the outside. But I come across this a lot in the cyclists I talk to. Almost everyone in cycling is trying to be a better version of themselves, and are using cycling to help them achieve this. It’s powerful stuff – but it’s not always easy to do – this is where accountability can help. Taking the desire and setting you up to ensure you are guided through the journey, and held accountable for your actions in the most positive sense.

15. Stick to your principles

Whilst some professional teams abandoned their tough drug policies for ‘truth and reconciliation’ following the Lance Armstrong scandal, Brailsford reinforced zero tolerance. Four senior members of staff left Team Sky having confessed to past involvement in doping. “We prefer to compromise our performance rather than change our policy,” says Brailsford.

This is a new trend with managers like Brailsford and Vaughters leading the way. In their case I don’t see this as a publicity stunt or shallow attempt at showing they are trying to move the sport forward cleanly.

What are your principles – you might live under a set of life principles, but what about when it comes to cycling? This covers a whole range of different areas of cycling – anywhere from running red lights to taking shortcuts during races. If you know where you stand – things become a lot simpler when you are faced with these decisions. Especially if they are split second decisions.




Photo Credit: rezleb on Flickr


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