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After the Olympic games in 1996, where Britain finished 36th in the medal count, Sir John Major shifted some of the national lottery money towards sport. Journalist Owen Slot covered the team through this time and in 2017 wrote The Talent Lab. He told a crowd at Google, “If you just chuck money at it does that guarantee you success? Money equals medals? My answer is very much ‘No’.”
Money did not solve Britain’s Olympic issues but it did make the next steps easier – and there were many next steps. By the 2016 Rio games, Australia spent more on their Olympic program but Great Britain won more medals. At the 2012 London games, Japan and Korea combined spent seven times what Great Britain did only to win the same numbers of medals.
In addition to the lottery money was a cultural shift that reprioritized what as important. In the past, athletes selected their own coach, facility, and process. Now the British looked for athletes for their coaches and plans. They looked at base rates and determined that rowers needed to be a certain height, taekwondo athletes needed to do thirty-five high kicks in a minute, and swimmers needed to live within twenty minutes of a pool and not be older than thirty-two.
The coaching system changed too. Athletes are benchmarked numerically and now coaches would be scored, tallied, and ranked too. Even on intangibles. Steve Nash told Bill Simmons that they track resilience in soccer. “How?” Simmons asked. Attitude, hustle plays, and teamwork Nash said. They point out when players do or don’t do certain things. The English problem was too much stress, too much pointing out flaws too close to the events.
Base rates and coaching changes weren’t a silver bullet. Slot said, “I had a massive struggle with that. I tried to please my editor, but if you’re writing about twenty some gold medals you’ve got twenty some different stories. I started telling him that we were kidding our readers if we were going to tell them there was one thing all twenty some of these people did for success. It’s not just your ten-thousand hours, or your leadership, or your environment, or your talent – it’s all these things….but that doesn’t give you the opportunity to put one simple answer on the book.” Michael Ovitz told Ben Horowitz that the CAA culture was like this, a composite solution.
With the mindset of improvement, the lessons kept coming. Someone suggested that injured servicemen would make good paralympians. Here’s a group, most with an athletic background who have already proven they will work hard and follow instructions. The serviceman to Olympian program was a bust. Why? “No serviceman who went to Afghanistan or Iraq ever had the dream of becoming a paralympian.” Motivation mattered.
For 2008, British engineers redesigned the cycling bikes and kits, but a bike can only be so light. By this point they’ve changed the physical nature (selection of athletes), the psychology (management of coaches), and the physics (weight of bicycles). ‘What else could we do?’ they asked the athletes.
They got a surprising answer. “The team found that riders were somewhat embarrassed to talk about them and they were staggered by the number of training days missed due to saddle sores. Because no athlete wants to miss a training session if they train their training isn’t as good. So instead of trying to make the bike faster, they worked on that problem.” Their solution was simple, decline the saddle angle a few degrees. Those people who face the winds of the real world often have helpful solutions.
Previous British Olympic culture was heavy on top-down expertise. Once that culture changed, the teams started to change too. Pete Carroll said one of his best meetings was when he was a young coach and went to the players to ask them what they thought they should work on. They gave him good ideas. Proud of this insight, Carroll went to the head coach, high stepping like a proud child only to be admonished to never do that again and leaving with is tail between his legs. These insights are only found when teamwork trumps ego.
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