What Drives Ninety-Nine Percent of Performance

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We tend to think national and world class athletes have it all figured out. They are dialed in, optimizers of everything: they do the little things that the rest of us don’t. We also believe that the coaches of such athletes must be obsessed with the final 0.1%, always searching for marginal gains. This story sounds good. And, in some exceedingly rare cases, it might be true. But in my nearly two decades of working with national and world-class athletes, I developed a simple rule of thumb for when I started coaching someone new: look for the big holes.

Let’s take my favorite sport of distance running as an example. It isn’t complex. The foundation is essentially the same in any decent training program: do you get in decent overall mileage? Do you have a long run? Do you execute workouts up and down the intensity spectrum—from short and fast, to medium and steady, to long and slow? Do you do some sort of strength training or sprint work?

Even with NCAA champions or Olympic Trials qualifiers, there were almost always relatively big holes to fill. It could be that an athlete never sprinted, or that they did lots of short and fast intervals but never any longer sustained efforts. You fill the big holes first. Why? They are low risk, high reward. Think of these big items as the primary ingredients to bake the cake. They are the sugar, butter, and flour. From there, you look at surrounding factors that may have a large impact on the overall performance of an athlete, such as sleep, stress, and nutrition. In our baking analogy, these factors are akin to making sure the oven is at the right temperature, that we’ve added the right kind of flavoring, and that the frosting pairs well the inside of the cake.

It’s only after we know that we have the right core ingredients and the right environmental factors to make the cake that we worry about smaller details—the final touches and decorations that may make it look a bit nicer, but probably won’t have much of an impact on the taste of the cake.

In sports, these are the minor details that may or may not have much of an impact. It’s the precise timing of nutrient intake, the micro nutrients that may or may not matter, the exact sequence of drills or strength exercises that might make some theoretical sense, but if we’re being honest, we are really just guessing. This is where the minor details, or as some have come to call it, marginal gains, come into play. The number of athletes I’ve worked with who need a marginal-gains level of detailed optimization is slim. Why? Because contrary to the popular performance notion that the best of the best optimize everything, that’s not how it works in the real world. If I obsess over the exact micro nutrients of someone’s diet or the exact timing between their morning run and afternoon strength training session—it’s more likely to add stress and drive them nuts than it is to provide any performance benefit. For many, obsessing over marginal gains shifts their focus from the bread and butter of what matters most to worrying about making sure the rest of their diet, recovery modality, and so on is optimized to the utmost degree.

For runners especially, a group that tends to be a bit neurotic, you are adding fuel to the fire. The end result is often an athlete who thinks that if they don’t do their warm-up drills in the precise order before a race, then their race is doomed. Or if they don’t have their pre-race massage to get their muscles feeling a certain type of way, they are going to be in trouble. This kind of obsession doesn’t make you stronger; it makes you fragile.

When we spend all our time optimizing the minors, we neglect the majors.

And yet, when we look around online in the health and performance space, that’s exactly what we see. We are majoring in the minors. We worry about if we should delay drinking our coffee upon waking, how we should breath during our morning jog, or our precise pre-work routine. Just go and see for yourself what is most popular on social media and podcasts. It’s not looking for the big holes. It’s obsessing over the tiny details. I’m not saying that we should ignore the minor details, or that you need to be an elite athlete to worry about marginal gains. Some of those details can make a difference, and if they help you do the major things, more power to you. Even so, I can’t help but notice that too many of us obsess over the final details, the fancy cake decorations that make the thing look nice on Instagram, but that do not impact the taste whatsoever.

If you want to go into the details (and it doesn’t make you neurotic), great! But remember my rule of thumb when working with elite athletes: make sure the basics are rock solid first. If they aren’t, no amount of tinkering with the small things is going to matter.

​Steve​

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