18 March 2016


Creating a Dynasty: The Secret of Sustained Success

Daniel Gallan

In elite sport, winning is hard enough, winning time and time again is almost impossible. And yet some teams manage to do it. Throughout history there have been sporting dynasties that dominate their code with an air of impunity. But how do they do it? What is the secret to sustained success?

Great British Cycling Team are establishing themselves as a modern dynasty.

Great British Cycling Team's men's team pursuit in action at the London 2012 Olympic Games. GBCT would go on to win 8 golds for the second consecutive Games.  Image supplied by Action Images / Jason O'Brien .

Great British Cycling Team's men's team pursuit in action at the London 2012 Olympic Games. GBCT would go on to win 8 golds for the second consecutive Games. Image supplied by Action Images / Jason O'Brien.

“How many sporting dynasties can you name?”

The question was posed to me by Andy Harrison – Programme Director for Great British Cycling Team (GBCT), a team now firmly on the path to creating a sporting empire.

Since 2000, GBCT has contributed 34 medals to Team Great Britain over 4 Summer Olympic Games. Their closest competitors Germany, Australia and France have amassed 25, 24 and 21 medals respectively in that time. Of those 34 medals, 19 are gold with 16 of them secured in the last two Games alone. Apart from Jamaican sprinting, Chinese badminton and American swimming, few other codes have seen one nation enjoy as much dominance over so many Games.

Winning senior international events is the main aim of GBCT’s existence. They do this by establishing a pathway supply chain that is both effective and flexible in order to sustain success. There is a uniform approach to success that encourages accountability, empowers individuals, and focusses on improving every aspect that constitutes performance. For Harrison, the word ‘dynasty’ is used not only to reflect a repetition of successful outcomes, but also the hereditary pressure to achieve as much as possible and to constantly improve.

This philosophy is implemented throughout the organisation, from the riders and coaching staff, as well as those responsible for administrative and technical resources. Innovation does not have a hierarchy.  As Harrison says, “Everyone in GBCT is empowered and encouraged to be as creative as possible and to constantly look for ways to improve. That is why I believe we have sustained success over a long period.”

There is never an inclination to keep things the way they were. What worked before does not guarantee future success. In any sport, the goal is to reduce the disparity between projected targets and what was actually achieved. Harrison believes that no organisation achieves exactly what it set out to do and therefore sustained success requires flexibility and the understanding that change is empirical and non-emotional.

Identifying what the vision, the mission and the objectives are allows GBCT to put in place periodised programmes that all work towards a 4 year cycle. Thanks to the amount of data at their disposal, these programmes can be altered week-by-week or even day-by-day. A rider’s development is non-linear and so a drop in performance might simply be a minor blip on an otherwise upward trajectory. A ton of data allows the decision makers at GBCT to make informed decisions about whether or not to pull the plug on a programme or continue to have faith that things will work out over time.

Change for change’s sake is counterproductive. That is why it is so difficult to keep improving when things are going well. “We never make a decision or change anything based on gut feel,” Harrison says, “Everything is measurable to a greater or lesser degree. We objectivise the subjectivity. We break everything down.”

It’s crucial that an organisation applies the same introspection when winning as they do when losing. The old adage, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it”, can be a death knell to productivity. All performances need to be deconstructed because success in one particular event or season may be the result of external factors, such as the climate of the sport, or through a brilliant breakthrough. By deconstructing success, GBCT is able to identify the areas that need improvement and can implement change even when success has been achieved.

Great Britain's Victoria Pendleton celebrates winning gold in the Women's Keirin at the London 2012 Olympic Games.  Image supplied by Action Images / Andrew Boyers . 

Great Britain's Victoria Pendleton celebrates winning gold in the Women's Keirin at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Image supplied by Action Images / Andrew Boyers

The organisation has adopted a “What it takes to win” model and approach which breaks down the way results are achieved. Every element that makes up the critical success factors that determine what it takes to win has associated key performance indicators. It’s about piecing together the jigsaw to create a winning picture. Individualisation is critical, not just in terms of what constitutes performance, but for each rider as well.

GBCT currently watches over the development of 120 able bodied and 40 Para-cycling riders. Each rider’s programme and expectations are individualised as much as possible. It is impossible to implement the same strategy to every athlete and expect the same result. If the same results are expected, unique programmes need to be put in place in order to achieve them.

This also applies whenever a collective strategy has been implemented such as a new cultural identity within the organisation. However, it is imperative that change is incremental, restrained and deliberate as there is a risk of “change fatigue” where an athlete or sports practitioner can become disorientated and demotivated by constant change. After all, if wholesale changes are going to be made every 4 weeks, what’s the point of investing time and energy into a particular programme?

“People often lose sight of what strategy is,” Harrison says. “They can become obsessed with operational excellence and focus entirely on what made them successful.” Of course that is important, but that is not the way to achieve sustained success.

Harrison uses a surfing metaphor to explain how GBCT constantly improves. He says that momentum never ebbs and flows but is always moving forward. “We find a wave to ride on and keep riding it until it crashes, but rather than crash with it, we jump straight on to the next wave. We keep doing this by always staying vigilant; always open to the next big idea.” Sustained success demands a consistent force that is always moving forward.

The trick is to know when to jump on to the next wave as that can be a daunting prospect. What if the next wave crashes too early? What if the one you’re on has a much longer lifespan than you thought? What would the consequences be as a result of a premature jump? The fear of failure can be a crippling constraint and prevents sustained success. For most athletes or teams, getting to the top is hard enough and it is all too tempting to persevere.

Not for GBCT. “There is no such thing as a fear of failure here,” Harrison says confidently. “Everyone is excited by change and wants to be the person who initiates it.”

GBCT passes ownership and responsibility onto individuals and this creates a culture of accountability and leadership. Everyone understands that the best idea could come from anywhere within the organisation. “We are constantly reinventing, reinvigorating and reimagining,” he says. “We are not afraid to promote coaches, riders, systems or programmes should the evidence support it.”

One of GBCT’s strategic taglines is “Next Level”. This is a call to arms for everybody within the organisation to keep moving forward. As Harrison says, “Complacency is suicide.”

To show that they mean it, GBCT has removed any nod to past historical success at their headquarters in Manchester. Sure, there are images and memorabilia that can be seen by anyone at the front office, but walk past the threshold where performance operations take place and you’ll find a world devoid of history.

There are no medals. There are no images of previous Games. New riders are not given a number to denote how many have come before them. GBCT has looked at mental triggers that may encourage complacency and have removed them. There is no need to glorify the past because the past is irrelevant. All that past success provides is the ability for us to be right here right now with the resources available to us.”

There can never be an assumption that being handed a British Cycling skinsuit provides the benefits of merely turning up to competition and winning. Nothing is taken for granted. While some teams use former glories to inspire and motivate, GBCT do this sparingly.

The reason why there are more champions than dynasties is that creating success that spans multiple generations of athletes requires more than having the right personnel and tactics. There needs to be a belief within the organisation that nothing but the best is tolerated. This is a podium programme: it’s either a medal or failure. As Harrison says, “If you’re happy with sitting back, that is the straightest and truest way to failure.”

Transitional periods need to be identified early so the appropriate strategies and programmes can be implemented. The changing of the guard needs to be seamless. The momentum unchanged. There are very few Olympic and world champions in any sport. There are even fewer who have achieved sustained success over so many years.

Not that British Cycling pays any attention to it, but if history is anything to go by, this reign of dominance shows no signs of letting up. Harrison and his team to stick to their plan, and keep moving forward.