Critical Non-Essentials V’s Marginal Gains Giving the F word to GB Athletes

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Spencer Gore
Director, European Medical Journal
@SJGore

The first ‘business book’ I remember reading many moons ago was ‘Winning’ by Sir Clive Woodward. I’m not sure how many people would call it a business book either, rather a sporting biography, however in my eyes it’s a great business book. I’m not a Rugby player although I’m often asked if I am due to my sheer size, and I’m not even a Rugby fan. However, I still have this as one of my all-time favourite books. There are so many good points to be taken from it you could write all day about it.

Although I’ve not met Sir Clive, I’ve been lucky enough to speak to Yehuda Shinar a few times. Yehuda is the person that taught Sir Clive about ‘Critical Non-Essentials’ as he calls them or ‘Marginal Gains’ as Sir Dave Brailsford calls it. In my eyes, they are one and the same thing and the way I summarise it, is that rather than saying I want to improve at what I’m doing by 50%, which not only seems daunting, but it’s hard if not impossible to just find one thing that will have that sort of impact. Instead, break down what you are doing into 100 smaller parts and try and improve them all by just 0.5%. None of these things alone will win you the Rugby World Cup or the Tour de France but when you add them all up you have a 50% increase. That can be the difference between 1st or 4th.

Team Sky experimented with taking riders pillows with them on Tour and noticed they started sleeping better. So, the next step for them was to start taking the riders own mattresses around on tour with them to give them the best possible sleep. Again, this alone won’t win you the race but add it in with another 99 things like this you start seeing the difference.

In Winning by Woodward there is the following sentence, and he asked you to count the letter F’s in it. Have a go and see how many you get.

FINISHED FILES ARE THE RESULT OF YEARS OF SCIENTIFIC STUDY COMBINED WITH THE EXPERIENCE OF YEARS.

I use this in Interviews that I do for new staff and over 90% get it wrong. Most say 3, some 4 or 5 (which I don’t understand) and very few 6 which is the correct answer (count the 3 ‘of’ if you missed them!). The point of this is to show you how easy it is to not pay attention to detail, that’s just how the brain works. As a publishing company this is particularly important, (although I am the worst at it!) But if 90% of our competitors are making this sort of mistake as well it also shows you just how easy it is for us to stand out from the crowd and look good. We just need to look at every little detail and make sure we get it right. The same applies in Rugby, Cycling, Business or Challenge273.

I explained how we used this technique to Keith Moule when we first started sponsoring him and Lizzie Broughton to race the Devizes to Westminster 200km canoe race a couple of years ago. It certainly wasn’t the difference between them winning or not on that occasion because they won by nearly an hour becoming the first mixed crew to ever do so and breaking the record on the way. However, Keith tells me now when all his competition are chatting away before a big race he’s there waxing the underside of his boat. He does a number of Critical Non-Essentials like this all the time and it’s these details that helped him get into the top 10 in the world.

It’s for this reason I went to get my gait measured this week to help me choose the right trainers for both training and the race itself. If I can find 99 other little things like this it might just be the difference between finishing or not.

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