Onto the podium

Jonathan Males explores the difference that a 1% improvement in performance can make for top athletes.

London welcomed over 10,500 athletes for the 2012 Olympics.  They competed for some 307 gold medals awarded for 39 disciplines in 26 different sports. Allowing for team events such as hockey and rowing, this means that only about 4% of the best athletes in the world took home a gold medal, and perhaps 12% in total got on to the podium.  For Olympic athletes, reaching the podium is a tangible outcome for their many years of hard work. For the serious athletes, fourth place and no medal to show for it may as well be last.

What difference does 1% make?

I’ve helped athletes prepare for the last six Olympic Games so I’ve seen at first hand the tiny differences between success and failure.  This difference – between fourth place and a medal – can be vanishingly small. In many events, a 1% improvement can take an athlete onto the podium. I want to explore the significance of this observation, share some stories about those who have made it onto the podium, and identify some of the implications for those of us who face the more prosaic challenge of performing well in the world of work.

These results from the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics show the difference 1% makes across a range of sports:


The consequences of small performance differences are easy to see in sports that directly align with the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius, Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger”.  In these sports the outcome variables of time, distance or weight can be precisely measured.  It’s harder to document the precise difference that a 1% performance improvement makes to outcome in sports such as football, tennis, handball or basketball. Here the outcome is binary – win or lose.  So winning an Olympic medal requires safe passage through a series of tournament matches up to and including the semi-finals and finals.  The cruellest result is to lose in a semi-final, knowing that an Olympic gold medal is now out of reach, with nothing but the ignominy of a third and fourth place play-off.  Even a bronze medal is not assured.

Yet talk to any team sport player or coach and you will learn that these sports are examples of chaos theory in action.  A goal shot that misses by millimetres, an injury to a key player, or a single poor refereeing decision can all have a significant impact on the ultimate tournament result.  Success in these sports requires that a long series of coach and player decisions and actions unfold well, as well as a dose of luck in areas outside the team’s control.

Clearly it’s not as simple as just trying 1% harder. Successful performance in sport pulls together a whole raft of physical, technical, psychological and logistical factors at exactly the right time.  It’s the culmination of years of preparation and the days of a talented amateur turning up and winning a medal are long gone.  The science of sport performance is now well advanced, and sadly there’s an increasing correlation between the amount a country is prepared to spend and its Olympic success.  This is most true for technologically based sports like sailing or cycling, and least true for relatively low tech sports like middle and long distance running. Given tight economic times, expect to see more countries becoming increasingly selective about where they invest their resources.  Britain is not alone is using a price per medal calculation when making decisions about which sports to support. This approach tends to militate against team sports where there are only two gold medals – for men and women – up for grabs.

So small improvements can make a big difference – and the closer an athlete or team are to the podium, the more important these marginal gains become. It’s a modern version of the old proverb;  ‘For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
 For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
 For want of a horse the rider was lost.
 For want of a rider the message was lost.
 For want of a message the battle was lost. 
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. 
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.’ In modern sport this proverb is turned around to pay attention to the quality of each and every nail on the battlefield. At least one successful British sport employs a “Director of Marginal Gains” whose job is to seek out tiny improvements across the sport.

What can we learn from Olympic and Paralympic sport?

Many managers would argue that they’re not aiming for a gold medal. But when I’m working with organisations it’s because they want to make the most of their people’s potential. To do that, you can use the same principle: small improvements in the right areas will lead to big differences. The question is, where do you start? Here are some stories from people who have reached the podium.

1.     Clarity of intent

Shin Fujitomo was a Japanese gymnast at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Japan were neck-and-neck with their arch-rivals, the USSR, when Shin landed awkwardly on his final routine and tore the ligaments in his left knee.  He couldn’t walk, and was carried off the mat. And without Shin’s performance in the roman rings, the Japanese couldn’t win.

Shin had a plan, though. After a night of pain-killers and intensive physiotherapy, he asked to compete. His performance was essential for the team’s chances, so he’d mentally rehearsed it over and over. He was helped onto the mat and up to the rings. Despite being unable to stand unaided, he began his routine – and executed it flawlessly, right through to the final dismount which he held for the necessary two seconds. Then he collapsed in agony. But he’d done it – Japan took gold.

In business, you also need a crystal clear image of what your role should deliver. What are the specific outcomes you’re responsible for? Who are you delivering to, and by when? How much of your time and effort goes toward achieving them? Without this clarity of intent, you can’t separate what’s important from what isn’t.

2.     Do the basics very well

In 1992 I was coaching the Australian slalom canoeing team at the Barcelona Olympics. This was our discipline’s return to the Olympics after a twenty year gap, and we spent hours preparing on the purpose-built white-water course at La Seu d’Urgell, learning every wave and feature of the challenging rapids. No-one knew what the actual lay-out of the gates would be, but we knew it would be difficult. It was the Olympics after all…

We were wrong. TV schedules needed to keep things moving, so the day before the competition we saw a fast, open and straightforward course which skirted the difficult features we’d spent so long practising on. You could almost hear the collective groan of disbelief.

Despite their initial disappointment at such a simple course, I watched in amazement as some of the world’s best athletes blew their chances. Despite the relatively easy challenge presented by the gate sequences, many athletes failed to deliver when it counted. It worked in our favour: the under-rated Danielle Woodward performed solidly and won silver for Australia.

In business it’s just as easy to dismiss the boring basics for the latest shiny fad. But what are the essentials for your role? Are you, and your team robust under pressure? Could you bring 1% more of your attention to  your basic processes and procedures?

3.     It’s not just about feeling good

Another surprise from the same Olympics was when British kayaker Richard Fox didn’t place, despite having dominated the sport for the previous decade. Fourth place only stiffened his resolve…

By May in 1993, I was coaching the British team and met up with Richard on a cold, windswept Nottingham riverbank. I asked him why he’d come back from training in the sunny south of France, especially for a lower-ranking race like this?

“I’ve been training really hard and I’m exhausted,” Richard told me. “I’ve got a cold.  This will be a tough race that I don’t feel like doing. It’s a real hassle to come back, and – as I expected – the weather’s bad. But I need to know I can race well, no matter how I feel.”  He won the weekend’s race, and also the World Championships that year, for an unequalled 5th time.

Although emotions can be an important source of information, they shouldn’t be used to justify inaction or poor performance in business. All too often I see managers who can’t tolerate emotional discomfort, and who hide away from the hard decisions about themselves, their teams, or their businesses. What if you were just 1% more willing to face emotional discomfort and do what’s right?

4.     Get the right balance between process and outcome

One of my early sporting mentors was Rick Mitchell, the Australian 400 metre runner who went on to lead the Tasmanian Institute of Sport in 1988. In the three years leading into the 1980 Olympics, no-one had beaten a time of 44.9 seconds in a major competition, so Rick developed a strategy based on the assumption that if he could run this fast, he could win the gold medal. He based his training on reaching that target time, under pressure, when it counted. And he did – in fact he ran even faster in the final, covering a single lap of the Moscow stadium in 44.84 seconds.  The only problem for Rick was a young Russian runner, unknown in the west, named Viktor Martin. Viktor covered the same lap in 44.6 seconds to take the Gold Medal. Rick won the Silver medal – and his time still stands as an Australian record.  So Rick was highly successful in managing the process of his performance and executed his own race plan perfectly; every pace, every stride, just as he intended. Everything that was within his control went to plan. The performance was, by some margin, a personal best.  Yet he failed to achieve his desired outcome, because his strategy was based on imperfect information – not knowing about the Siberian performances of the youngster Martin.

In business, effective strategies rely on the best possible intelligence and careful judgment about the right processes to achieve the desired results.  Process and outcome then need to be held in a dynamic balance.  Process without outcome becomes senseless bureaucracy, while outcome without process leads to either to wasted resources or blurred ethics.  A small change in this balance, in either direction, can make a big difference.

Over to you

Clarity of intent, doing the basics well, pushing through emotional discomfort and managing the balance between process and outcome. In almost any business or line of work, these are four areas where even small improvements can make a big difference.  In summary, the art of performance is about being able to think straight, relate well, and act powerfully. No matter how good you are already, my challenge to you is to seek out a 1% improvement in any or all of these areas. Because the truth is that despite the glamour of the Olympics and its powerful examples of technical brilliance, commitment and success against the odds, many people doing so-called ordinary jobs contribute far more to the overall good of humanity than most Olympic athletes. The London Olympics and Paralympics inspired us all – so now find and make the 1% change that will make the biggest difference to your contribution  – and even get you on to your podium.