After captaining Europe to Ryder Cup success earlier inthe year, Paul McGinley shared some of the secrets to how he managed to gel sowell with the rest of the team, over what is often a fraught weekend of match playgolf. One of the things he particularly highlighted, was the way in which heattempted to understand the players as ‘real people’ besides the strengths (orweaknesses) of their games.

Such an attention to detail and the finer points isbecoming more and more important in the world of sport, as players and backroomstaff attempt to gain an edge on their opposition, or at least to not losefurther ground on them. Whether it be through technological advances, detailedanalysis of statistics, psychology or physiology, sport never stays still as thatextra ‘few percent’ is sought.

It used to be common for those top of their field ofexcellence to be the first ones there and the last ones to leave the trainingpitch, as the kicking maestro Johnny Wilkinson was famed for demonstrating.During the era of Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, Coe has claimed that whatpushed him on to train twice on Christmas Day in 1979 (in the lead up to theirepic clashes in Moscow’s Olympics of 1980) was because he suspected that hisgreat rival would already be out training a second time, so he feared losingground to him otherwise.

The great Manchester United teams under Sir Alex Fergusonhave referred to the “hairdryer treatment’ and a general fear of upsettingtheir manager, when trying to explain why he achieved so much success with histeam. Ian Botham may have been the major character in the England cricket teamin the late ‘70s / early ‘80s but behind that group was a great thinkingcaptain in the form of Mike Brearley, as exemplified by his later career as apsychoanalyst. Maybe not the most talented of cricketers, he made a finecaptain as evidenced by his record of only losing four Test matches in the 31matches he captained the side, with many observers commenting on his abilitiesin man-management.

Football is a sport where statistics seem to beincreasingly important, with OPTA and the clubs themselves producing a wealthof data that can be analysed to spot trends and potential weaknesses in both ateam’s own players and their upcoming opponents. Sam Allardyce and BrendanRodgers are two keen exponents of the patterns that can be drawn out fromstatistics, with Rodgers and his staff utilising the available data to attemptto identify potential injuries before they occur. Real Madrid recognise thegains from the analysis side, with Carlo Ancelotti’s right-hand man, EnglishmanPaul Clement (a former Chelsea backroom staff employee, like Rodgers), managinga team of six analysts. Their role is to check opponents months in advance ofReal playing them, submitting reports, preparing videos and graphics to beshown to the players. GPS units on the players’ vests allow data to be collatedon running speed, intensity, distance and even some gait analysis to aid ininjury prevention.

Other sports are not without their own methods forgaining an edge. The Welsh Rugby Union squad have been known to toughenthemselves up through intensive training camps, followed by ice baths, in anattempt to build themselves up for the challenges ahead in the Six Nations andthe like. Even the golfers are not averse to improving their basic fitness toimprove their game, as Lee Westwood admitted in recent years after taking tothe gym, following some disappointing results previously in tournaments. RonnieO’Sullivan is a keen runner outside of snooker to provide some variety to hislifestyle, recognising that fitness of body may help with his focus on thegreen baize.

Perhaps the greatestexponent of looking for that extra one or two percent in performance levels isthe cycling guru, Sir Dave Brailsford. His ‘marginal gains theory’ around thetime of the Olympics was explained to the BBC as “the idea that if you brokedown everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and thenimproved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them alltogether”. Ensuring that cyclists washed their hands thoroughly and slept onthe same pillow night after night may seem a little extreme, but the conceptclearly had some foundations. The introduction of Dr Steve Peters, a leadingsports’ psychiatrist into the Team GB track cycling set up also seems to havebeen a factor in their success. The results after his involvement werestaggering and although that can not be completely put down to Peters’assistance, Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton have both spoken in glowingtones of his influence. ‘Rocket’ Ronnie has also utilised Peters’ skills to prolonghis snooker career and claim a fourth and fifth world title with some soundwords of advice and others to endorse his work have included Liverpool FootballClub. Soothing the “chimp within” may not be everybody’s idea of saneconversation, but clearly with Peters there is some method in his (apparent)madness! 
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