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Getting Better Gradually, Not Miraculously


At the 2012 London Olympics, the home country put on a show. Team Great Britain captured 29 Gold medals, trailing only the US and China in that regard. It was their most successful Olympics in over 100 years.

There was a flood of books, Ted talks, and articles celebrating and glorifying the methods that UK Sport and British Cycling in particular took to achieve success at the 2012 Olympics. The ‘marginal gains’ concept, or the belief that every little half a percent of performance matters and taken together they add up to something large, was chief among them.

Yet, when we peel back the curtain, it appears that it wasn’t all marginal gains and rainbows. In recent weeks, UK Sport and British Cycling have been rocked by allegations of their doctor delivering drugs to cyclists and a kind of cover-up involving drug use and avoidance of normal drug testing protocols. I don’t suppose you could sell many books saying If you want’ to get better, forget marginal gains and go dope.

The point isn’t to rail on UK Sport, but I’ve seen this story way too often. We fall for a narrative, an explanation for greatness that is intuitively appealing, that lacks any substance or rigor upon even the littlest prodding.

Look no further than the butter in your coffee trend of a few years ago. The purported benefits of increased energy, muscle growth, and lean body mass were explained using complicated theories and vague scientific terms such as “myotoxins.” Yet the founder of this trend was hopped up on a PED cocktail involving testosterone and Modafinil, a stimulant given to people suffering from narcolepsy. What do we think had the actual performance effect, the butter in the coffee or the PED cocktail?

In the performance writing genre which Brad and I occupy, stories are often the driver. We look at what the best of the best do, and then take whatever cohesive narrative is thrown our way and run with it. We accept marginal gains or butter in our coffee or some new-fangled training technique, only to find out much later that the truth was murkier.

This does a massive disservice. It sends the message that there’s some secret, some way to innovate our way to greatness, instead of painting (the less marketable) reality: That getting better in just about anything in a legitimate way takes a lot of hard work and recovery over time. Sure, there are ways to optimize those parameters, but those optimizations make small differences. They aren’t magically going to turn us into world-beaters, like, say, a performance-enhancing drug will.

My hope is that more people stop falling for the magical narrative, the appealing explanation, and instead showcase people up who have been quietly putting in the work year after year and who are getting better gradually, not miraculously.

— Steve

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