The Inside Track
Jeremy Swan speaks to Sir Dave Brailsford, the coach who led British cycling to gold medal success at two Olympics, and who guided Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome to Tour de France victories in 2012 and 2013. He stepped down from his role in British Cycling in 2014 to concentrate his efforts on leading Team Sky.
Have you noticed an increase in support for cycling in recent years?
Without a doubt. It’s grown massively in popularity in the last five to ten years – beyond all recognition of the sport I grew up in, that’s for sure! People are more aware of it now, thanks to success in the Olympics and Tour de France, and more and more people have taken up cycling for health reasons too.
What would you like to achieve in the next five years?
You can’t look backwards in sport; you’ve always got to look forwards. I think personally for me, I’d like to be more successful in the next five years than in the last five. That’s a pretty good goal for us at Team Sky. It gives us a target and I’d like to think that over the whole decade we can be recognised as the best team in the world.
"You’re in very dangerous territory if you let success go to your head."
How do you go about keeping things fresh and guarding against complacency?
I think you’ve got to be very careful. It’s easy to get to the point where you think you’ve cracked things and you know what’s going on. You’re in very dangerous territory if you let success go to your head. Team dynamics are a living entity and change all the time. The same solutions will never give you the same results every time, so you have to innovate. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can renew things and create an environment where people have a real sense of purpose, drive and hunger. Ultimately, that’s the pre-requisite for success.
You’ve spoken before about marginal gains. What’s the big idea and what difference does it make?
It’s a philosophy we’ve used to go from no-hopers to world-beaters. It’s about breaking the sport down into its constituent parts and then saying: can we improve each one of these areas by a small amount? Of course we can. That process becomes quite contagious, so the improvements that you make begin to stick and you get this massive momentum when you cobble it all together. It’s quite a daunting thing to demand a perfect performance, but most people will genuinely believe they can get a little bit better. One step in a thousand miles seems inconsequential, but they add up over time.
What are your top tips for building a successful team?
First and foremost you have to spend time looking at what success looks like, so you have a very clear target that you are working towards. You then need to recruit a diverse team with the right attitude, experience, knowledge and mix of skills. Then you have to pull the group together and work out your values and beliefs as a team. You need to figure out, right from the off, what you’re all about. As a leader, you have to set the standard of expectation and make sure everybody within your team understands their role and has got a clear plan. Then you can use the carrot to encourage them to perform.
How do you balance experience in your team with the need to develop young talent for the future?
You can’t fast-track experience, but you can focus on it. You can encourage younger athletes to be engaged proactively so they can gain experience as efficiently as possible. I think the older and more experienced people in the team also need to recognise their mentoring role.
What do you think the role of technology is in boosting performance in sport?
Personally, I’d say it plays a massive part in modern sport and it will continue to increase. Equally, sport is a human endeavour, so the numbers are there to inform, not to dictate. Knowing how to use numbers, data and technology is important as well. It’s never going to replace the human aspect, but it can inform the process and make us more refined and better at what we do.
"You have to have this desire and hunger which allows you to work for a long time in a very arduous fashion and hard work will then reap the reward."
Our city’s brand new velodrome, the Derby Arena, opened earlier this year. What impact do you think it will have on cycling as a sport?
I think like any sport, you can’t get away from the fact that you need great facilities. Having seen the velodromes in Manchester, Newport and Glasgow, I’m sure the impact of Derby Arena on the community will be terrific. But what we do need is a vibrant and welcoming coaching club environment to make it easy for people to get into track cycling. The opportunity that presents is huge, especially for schools and the younger age group.
How can we make our cities safer places for cyclists?
Most cyclists drive and lots of drivers cycle, so there’s a mutual respect that could occur to make things safer without anything being spent on infrastructure. I was recently at a race in Maastricht and the system there is just perfect, it just felt safe. The road layouts were well-designed and cyclists and cars were aware of each other.
What makes a winner? Is it all about inspiration or hard work?
You have to have a talent, obviously, and then hunger. They’re the two things, really. You have to have this desire and hunger which allows you to work for a long time in a very arduous fashion and hard work will then reap the reward. I think that’s the difference with people who become champions – they’ve got what it takes and they understand how much they need to put in. There’s no going away from the fact that hard work is absolutely essential.
What’s been the most memorable experience in your career so far?
Well, I’ve had a few to be honest! I’ve been very lucky. But I think the one moment that stood out for me was the night of the opening ceremony at the London 2012 Olympic Games. I was there with Bradley [Wiggins] and he walked out and rang the big bell to start it all off. For a British rider, wearing the yellow jersey of the Tour de France, to be chosen to do that in front of billions of spectators…it was like that moment captured so many different aspects and that’s probably one of the most memorable really.
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