Having good technique in the pool is critical.
And being the athlete that shows up every day to practice and throws down like a boss is important.
But if all of the top athletes on the planet are doing both, what is that separates the gold medal winners, the world record holders, the defending champions from the rest of us mere mortals?
Today I am going to show you just how critical the little things are.
HOW TO WIN 16 OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALS 1% AT A TIME
In the span of less than ten years Sir David Brailsford would take a British cycling program that occasionally medaled at the Olympics and turned it into the most successful sport of any kind in British history.
The domination on the track was nothing short of astonishing…
…a combined 16 gold medals at the Beijing and London Olympics.
Not only that, but when Brailsford also took over the road cycling program in 2009, British cyclists would win the Tour de France twice within his first four years at the helm.
So what was the magical strategy that Brailsford used to take a pair of average programs and turn them into the dominant cycling nation on the planet?
The strategy was something so simple, so basic, and so vastly underestimated that it had been completely overlooked…
…something that once implemented gave his athletes a feeling of overwhelming confidence, of preparedness, and of knowing that they were doing more than the next rider…
…something he calls the “aggregation of marginal gains.”
MASSIVE SUCCESS WITH TINY STEPS
This strategy isn’t completely new.
Wilhelm Steinitz, an Austrian-American who became the world’s first undisputed chess champion in the 19th century, realized that a great deal of small advantages that may not be decisive individually could be overwhelming collectively.
He understood that victory didn’t have to come in the form of one giant, sweeping move, and that it very rarely did.
Taking his cues from Steinitz, Brailsford took British cyclists apart piece-by-piece and started hunting out the areas where the athletes could make small improvements…
Some things he would work on improving seem fairly obvious, and are rightfully fundamental:
But Brailsford would extend this philosophy into the outer areas of performance that typically go ignored.
Things like hygiene and finding the most effective handwash. Or finding what pillows and sheets provided an athlete optimal rest, and then trucking those pillows from hotel to hotel during training. Even figuring out what massage gel worked the most effectively.
Things that seem benign, trivial, or completely irrelevant. In other words, thethings that almost everyone ignores.
The results were undeniable.
When Brailsford took the position of performance director at British Cycling in 2003, British Cycling was a minor player on the track. With Brailsford behind the wheel for less than a year, the British cyclists won 2 gold medals in Athens.
But this would be just a teaser for what was to come.
In Beijing in 2008 his cyclists would run roughshod on the competition on their way to winning 8 gold medals. Four years later they would repeat the feat on home soil piling on another 8 golds.
The success would spill out onto the road as well.
In 2009 he was made the new General Manager of Team Sky, with a stated aim to win the Tour de France within 5 years.
Instead, he would win two, with Bradley Wiggins becoming the first Briton to win the Tour in 2012, with teammate Chris Froome placing second.
Froome would win the Tour the following year, making British cycling’s domination complete.
THE TAKEAWAY FOR SWIMMERS
In a sport that separates gold from silver by hundredths of a second you don’t need me to tell you that the little things matter.
An overwhelming majority of swimmers don’t have biomechanics, dietitians and space scientists at their disposal, nor do many athletes in the pool have access to all the gadgets and equipment that British Cycling has at the ready.
But you don’t need all of that to make this philosophy work for you.
There are a heap of things you can already be doing better or differently that directly impact your swimming.
I know sleep in particular is something that many swimmers could hack a little bit. Things like nutrition, hydration and recovery are all things you can immediately improve and see noticeable effect.
With a little bit of patience, and some self-awareness as to where you can make some mini improvements, you too can use the “aggregation of marginal gains” to see improved performances in the pool.
See you in the water.