Don MacNaughton Coaching

Growth Mindset and Marginal Gains

“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” – Vincent Van Gogh

If you’re a fan of British Cycling, you’ll already know about Team GB’s phenomenal success in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. They came from being absolute nobodies in the world of track cycling to winning seven gold medals. How did they do it? Well, it all comes down to developing a growth mindset and adopting an “aggregation of marginal gains” strategy. Sir Dave Brailsford, British Cycling performance director at the time, put it this way:

“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 per cent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

The great news is that anyone can apply the marginal gains strategy to any area of life to generate their own version of success – no bike required…

Marginal Gains

The concept of marginal gains can be summed up quite nicely by an old Tanzanian proverb that says, “Little by little, a little becomes a lot.” Dave Brailsford identified every individual aspect of track cycling success and set about making tiny improvements to move the team from where they were (nowhere) to where they wanted to be (the winners’ podium) one step at a time. He tested massage gels to find the most effective brand; introduced heated over-shorts to help keep working muscles warm; improved bike seat comfort; hired a professional to demonstrate correct hand-washing techniques, thereby limiting the potential for riders to pick up colds and infections; tested pillows and mattresses to find the best combinations for a restful sleep… literally hundreds of individual aspects were singled out and tiny 1 per cent improvements made in each one. Little by little, a little becomes a lot.

“Forget about perfection; focus on progression, and compound the improvement.” – Dave Brailsford

Forget About Perfection

Being able to focus on progression and compound the improvement requires a growth mindset. In a growth mindset, change is always possible, so no matter how far from your goal you perceive yourself to be, you believe that you can achieve it by working hard at making the improvements needed to get there. Growth is always a possibility.

When you then couple a growth mindset with a marginal gains strategy, you get progress – continued progress. You see, it’s fair to say that most of us might question the point of aiming for just 1 per cent when we’re often encouraged to think BIG and aim high, right? Well, think of it this way: maintaining the motivation needed to keep progressing towards a big goal can be a tough challenge, and that’s where setting smaller stepping-stone goals comes in. Breaking down a big goal into smaller, more manageable goals can help to keep you moving in the right direction.

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” – Confucius

You only need to consider the number of New Year resolutions made each year. How many of them are achieved? Big goals such as “lose 3 stone” or “clear all debts” are often too far away and they quickly begin to feel unachievable. Progress generally stops by mid-February!

Moving a Mountain

Whatever “mountain” you want to move, it takes a growth mindset to begin the process of carrying away small stones. Each small stone carried away is a marginal gain, and each small step taken adds up to become a big step in the right direction.

A change doesn’t need to be radical to be significant.

Small changes become lasting changes. Small, 1 per cent gains may seem hardly worth it, but small steps are doable and doing leads to achieving.

For example, if you want to lose weight, making radical changes to your diet and replacing everything you love to eat with cabbage smoothies is a giant step that’s unlikely to be maintained. A small, manageable step might be to switch one unhealthy takeaway meal each week with a healthy homecooked meal – a 1 per cent marginal gain that’s doable.

When changes are doable, they become routine, and then they become habit. When one new habit is established, you build on it to make a new 1 per cent marginal gain. One by one your marginal gains add up and you move your mountain. Focus on progression and compound the improvement.

What small things could you be doing today to help you achieve great things?

Email donald@zonedinperformance.com for latest performance coaching programmes



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