Pyeongchang: It’s All in the Kit

The British have an enviable record in Olympic Velodrome cycling. Apart from tremendous, powerful, and super-human athletes, British cycling has worked, and then worked some more on what they have called marginal gains.

Everything is reviewed and optimised: the bike’s aerodynamic shape; the materials it is built with to give maximum strength, minimum weight, bend and twist when needed; the shape of the helmet shape, and of course, the materials used to make the kit. All is considered and tested in wide tunnels.

It gets on the nerves of the opposition and it always ends with someone questioning the legality of what the British are doing.

Go back to the Summer Olympics of 2012 and France’s director of cycling Isabelle Gautheron said: “We are looking a lot at the kit they use. We are asking a lot of questions: how have they gained so many tenths of seconds? I am not talking about any illicit product because anti-doping tests are so strong. Honestly, we are looking a lot at the kit they use. They hide their wheels a lot. The ones for the bikes they race on are put in wheel covers at the finish [of a race].”

The French were further unnerved when Sir Dave Brailsford, the head of British cycling replied, “I told them we had some special wheels because we had made them especially round.”

British humour was yet again lost on the French. Referring to a French make of wheel, French paper L’Equipe’s ran a headline “Magic or Mavic.”

Brailsford was forced to later add, “The French seemed to have taken it seriously, but I was joking. They are the same wheels as everyone else. There is nothing special about them.”

When victory is measured in hundredths of seconds, it is the sum of all those tiny fractions of one percent of marginal gains that can be the difference between winning and perceived failure.  A life can be forged out of the two Olympic weeks and an athlete wants every chance they can to win.

The debate about the British focus on marginal gains has reopened at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. The Skeleton is an event for either the maddest of the mad or the bravest of the brave. You lie on a sledge and head down the course for around 50 seconds, head first at speeds of over 80 miles per hour.

For the last two Olympics the UK has won the women’s Gold Medal and defending champion Lizzy Yarnold is there again. The women’s medals haven’t been decided and overnight Dom Parsons won a bronze in the men’s race.

But in training, Yarnold, team-mate Laura Deas and men’s slider Parsons have performed much better than was expected based on recent World Cup performances. Could it be that they are just simply better at learning the best way down a course that no one has used before, or have they peaked at just the right time?

Of course, those were the reasons, but the British have done it again, announcing that for the first time the British sliders are wearing new hi-tech suits. Competitors are asking whether their new attire has played a part.

The complaints prompted the sport’s governing body to clarify that the suits were legal. It said: “The International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation currently checked race suits of the British skeleton team. There were no rule violations at the presented suits.”

Just as in cycling there are marginal gains to be made on the equipment but to question the kit that takes away all the credit from the athlete who has the skills, the muscles and focus. They train hard and the harder if they want to get to the top. These guys are dedicated beyond what most of us could imagine.

As Lewis Hamilton, the Formula 1 driver almost always reminds us when he wins, winning is a team effort. The driver, and that includes Skeleton drivers Yarnold, Deas and Parsons, are at the tip of a massive team effort of coaches, nutritionists, dieticians, physios, and science.

When a footballer is injured, and the manager says he will be back playing in three weeks that isn’t a guess. The physios are supported with a massive array of quantitative biometric and scan data. The answer is the answer of science.

Sometimes, it is the science of food. Harry Kane is an English footballer. Some might argue that he is currently the best centre-forward in Europe. This is what he said in October last year.

“I think, over the last year or so now, I’ve changed a lot off the pitch with the nutrition side of it, It kind of clicked in my head that a football career is so short. It goes so quickly, you have to make every day count.

“So, I have a chef at home to eat the right food, helping recovery. You can’t train as hard as you’d like when you have so many games, so you have to make the little gains elsewhere, like with food.

 “I was always eating well, never badly. But I have a guy come round and he explained what you could do, eating the right food at the right times. You could eat healthily all week and then carbs [carbohydrates] before a game, and that could make your body go into shock because you’re not used to it. So, maybe higher carbs sometimes, lower other times, making plans around training. I started doing that on Jan 1, a New Year resolution.

“I met the guy in December. I spoke to him and it blew me away a bit. I’d never looked too much into it, but when he explained what the body does and how he could help me recover… He helped me in the recovery from the [ankle ligament] injury, with certain foods I was eating. It opened my eyes a bit.

“He’s there [at Kane’s home] every day, Monday to Saturday, and leaves it in the fridge for Sunday. I hardly ever see him because I’m at training, but he’ll cook the food and leave it in the fridge. We’ve got a good plan going and it seems to be working.”

The Skeleton, in Great Britain, was funded £6.5 million over 4 years up to Pyeongchang to win a medal and there is already payback.

To win, the athlete needs to be funded. The funding pays for both the athlete’s own costs and the technology development. That is why the slider who wins will come from one of a very few countries. We may want to know who the best slider is, but we won’t. What we will learn is which supreme athlete also has the best team working with them.

Is this what we want from our sport? Would we rather watch every athlete wearing the same suits and riding the same board? No, and it can never be, and never was.

One of the criticisms of Formula 1 car racing is that we all believe that Lewis Hamilton is the fastest driver, but we can’t be sure because of the differences in the cars. So, it is with every sport.

Kane is a professional footballer and the Skeleton sliders are professional athletes and so it is right that they search for and find every source of marginal gain to add to their own abilities.

Winning is a massive team effort. Applaud the whole team and not just the man or woman who stands on the podium.

Interviewing to Build a Team

When I was a director of consulting in Coopers, during the 1980s I built a large and very successful decision support practice based on my early experience of financial planning systems. History doesn’t say much about ColyPlan but that was the spreadsheet system built in-house that was a real competitor to Lotus 1-2-3 (for the younger of my readers that was the market leader before Excel). Those were the days when I learnt to read paper computer tape punched with Fortran code.

The technology developed alongside my interest in decision support as both a technology and its psychology. Professor Peter Keen was a visiting director and an inspiration, and I met both Professor Kaplan and David Norton of Harvard University. After Coopers I came close to selling a company to David.

We did some great and innovative work. We needed a great and innovative team.

I was the only member at the start and by the time I left, at our largest I had built a team of more than 25. Getting the right people in the team was essential to its growth and following the advice of Paul Girolami, Chairman of Glaxo ( recruiting the right people was essential.

I haven’t checked on the internet but there must be thousands of articles about how to interview successfully. I know there are psychometric tests, technical tests, and checklists. I am also sure there are as many courses you could take to hone your technique.

At Coopers on our training courses I learnt some of these, but they never quite covered what I needed which was to build an effective and working team who would take the growth agenda into new sectors while staying on top of the developing technologies. There was no model to work from. Consulting was new and the area of work even newer.

I had my own way of recruiting which I would use whenever I could. Let me share it with you.

We had technical reviews of a candidate’s competence, but I left these to my senior managers because they were the ones who had to work day to day with the candidate. They checked if the candidate was technically up to scratch and if they understood the technologies. Before anyone got to me I knew that they had passed all the rigorous technical tests, but more importantly my team would be happy to work with them and trust them. However bright they were they needed my senior managers stamp of approval.

I was convinced that the team was more important than the individual and I needed to make sure that the team was never jeopardised. My job in the recruitment process was to assess how a candidate would fit into the team. Highly qualified candidates were rejected if they were lone wolfs or socially disruptive.

On the other hand, I searched out the intellectually disruptive. We always needed to be challenged especially in a growth area.

When it got to my turn I would call the interviewee late in the evening, normally around 5:30 or 6. We would meet, have a small chat just for me to check off any final technical issues, and then maybe after 15 minutes I would say something like ‘It has been a really busy day. What say we go and have a glass of wine and carry on talking there?’

I would pack my case and we would go off to the local wine bar, still chatting on the way.

We arrived, and I would always buy the drink, but as we talked soon members of the team would arrive, one by one, as they returned from their clients. This was of course prearranged because the team knew when I was interviewing, and I had told them join us. That was never a problem. We liked socialising and they knew these were drinks on expenses.

I know interviews are stressful enough without my ruse, but I had the chance to watch the candidate.

Consulting is a difficult environment. I remember when I was a young consultant Peter Burnham my director would throw me into the deep end. Once his secretary came to me around 10am and said Peter was delayed elsewhere and he had asked that I fill in for him at a meeting at the Ministry of Defence. All she had was a name and no detail and so I took a taxi, arrived, and had to work out as we talked why I was there. That was truly in at the deep end.

I would talk and watch my candidate. I would see how they related to the new arrivals. They knew that the job offer was dependent on impressing me, but suddenly other people were asking questions. It was noisy. They didn’t know if they were supposed to buy a drink or accept the offers of champagne (it was the 1980s).

I should say that there was no discrimination between genders and both men and women were subjected to this ordeal. Given all the recent discussion, although I now can’t remember the statistics, there was no discrimination between genders and as many women passed this ordeal as men.

I always worked on this principle. If there were equal competences between a male and female candidate I would always chose the woman. There was a technical consulting reason. It was a sexist world in the 1980s and I knew that a woman was always more likely to be able to see a Chief Executive faster than a male. That was the world then and that made them the more effective consultant.

I always learnt far more in these interviews than I could ever do with a desk-based meeting. It didn’t matter if they ever bought that round of drinks. I saw how they interacted with other people, their social skills and most important the team dynamic was enhanced.

We must have been doing something good because we were very successful, and many of my old team have gone on to do some great things. Whatever we were doing, it worked.

By way of a short postscript, early on a recruited candidate’s first day, I had a chat and owned up to the interview process, but also shared with them a piece of advice given to me by my director, when I first started.

He told me the 3 indiscretions, which if I committed, would cause him to fire me immediately. I said the same to my new team members

  1. Any fiduciary indiscretion from a small fiddle on my expenses to major fraud. The requirement of total honesty extended to both the firm and my clients.
  2. Getting caught having sex in the office. There was a sparkle in his eye as he carefully stressed the word caught.
  3. Finally, and most importantly, he said, not recruiting anyone because I thought they were cleverer than me and so become a threat. He said, I would always rise to my natural level and if they went further than me they would never forget who recruited, mentored and led them and meanwhile while they were rising up the organisation bright people would make my life easier. Always recruit the brightest people you can find, and they will make your life better.

That is some of the best advice you will ever hear.