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

Such an attention to detail and the finer points is becoming more and more important in the world of sport, as players and backroom staff attempt to gain an edge on their opposition, or at least to not lose further ground on them. Whether it be through technological advances, detailed analysis of statistics, psychology or physiology, sport never stays still as that extra ‘few percent’ is sought.

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

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

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

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

Perhaps the greatest exponent of looking for that extra one or two percent in performance levels is the cycling guru, Sir Dave Brailsford. His ‘marginal gains theory’ around the time of the Olympics was explained to the BBC as “the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together”. Ensuring that cyclists washed their hands thoroughly and slept on the same pillow night after night may seem a little extreme, but the concept clearly had some foundations. The introduction of Dr Steve Peters, a leading sports’ psychiatrist into the Team GB track cycling set up also seems to have been a factor in their success. The results after his involvement were staggering and although that can not be completely put down to Peters’ assistance, Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton have both spoken in glowing tones of his influence. ‘Rocket’ Ronnie has also utilised Peters’ skills to prolong his snooker career and claim a fourth and fifth world title with some sound words of advice and others to endorse his work have included Liverpool Football Club. Soothing the “chimp within” may not be everybody’s idea of sane conversation, but clearly with Peters there is some method in his (apparent) madness! 
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