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Lisa Fallon: Marginal gains make a really big difference to collective success

Culture of consistent daily improvement eases the pathway to achievement of goals

Firstly, I want to say thank you to all the people who sent messages and called this week. I never expected my words to resonate so much and I am very grateful for the time that people took to get in touch.

I’ve thought a lot this week about how, as a collective, we can sometimes look at the same thing and see it so differently. It reminded me of the image of ‘The Dress’ that circulated back in 2015 that went viral on social media.

‘The Dress’ has its own Wikipedia page now and appears different to people, even though they are looking at exactly the same thing.

For me, I see white and gold, but others see blue and black and its very, very difficult to convince anyone that sees it one way, to see it the other. It’s something I’ve often used with the teams I’ve worked with, and it always generated passionate debate amongst everyone in the room. Generally, it would be close to a 50/50 split.


As a coach, when you are working with a team to develop a winning culture, it needs buy-in from everyone

“There is currently no consensus on why ‘The Dress’ elicits such discordant colour perceptions among viewers,” says Wikipedia, “though these have been confirmed and characterised in controlled experiments.”

The reason for showing it was to highlight that as a group we might sometimes see things very differently based on our experiences, our education or our cultures but that we must align and agree on a way of seeing things or interpreting things, so that we could collectively work together towards our common goal.

The first thing we had to do as a group was to accept that other people saw things differently, even though we couldn’t see it that way. The players would often still be talking about it out on the training pitch.

As a coach, when you are working with a team to develop a winning culture, it needs buy-in from everyone. It means setting a standard of behaviour and needs commitment on a daily basis to creating good habits and normalising them as the standard of the group.

Little by little, the culture of the group grows and develops, but it’s that commitment to doing the small things every day that creates momentum in the group over time.

The Aggregation of Marginal Gains was a high-performance concept developed by David Brailsford who headed up British Cycling ahead of the London Olympics in 2012.

His theory was that if you commit to just a 1 per cent improvement every day, that over time, a significant shift occurs in performance. Across a whole squad of players, if they all make that small adjustment and do it every day, then the culture, standard and performance of the team goes up a whole different level.

It changes everything.

It doesn’t happen instantly and takes a shift in thinking, decision-making and a genuine commitment to doing what’s right for the team. You need everyone to buy in and sometimes that means sacrifice of individuals for the benefit of the team goal.

It might have meant changes in sleep patterns, nutrition, a 1 per cent extra in the gym, a few extra crosses and finishes at the end of the session, there were opportunities for those 1 per cents every day.

And it really does work. In football, what you did last year wouldn't get you to where you need to be next year. When we won the league at Cork City FC we knew it was going to be harder again to win it the following year. It was something that Dublin under Jim Gavin mastered.

Getting the little details right and doing it consistently changes the bar and the standard. But it’s actually impossible to tell, what ultimately makes the difference.

Last year, Ireland's most successful Paralympian of all time, Jason Smyth, won gold in the T13 100m. It was his sixth Paralympic gold and his toughest race. His winning margin over Algerian, Skander Djamil Athmani was one hundredth of a second. The tiniest of margins, but still it was a big margin because it was the difference.

What made the difference was the collective, every day, every person, the little details. That's how powerful a collective effort can be

The Tokyo Paralympics had been delayed a year due to Covid, so the cycle into last year's games was five years.

Five years of training, eating, sleeping, conditioning, decision-making and hitting standards. Somewhere over those five years he got a margin.

In the 2012 London Olympics men’s triathlon, the margin between first and second place was 0.11 seconds. Three events and that was the difference.

In 2017, Cork City won a league and cup double. We scored 67 goals and got 76 points. But you couldn’t pick out any seven points or any goals or any training session or any one thing that made the difference that year.

What made the difference was the collective, every day, every person, the little details. That’s how powerful a collective effort can be.

That in the moment that matters, someone somewhere can make a positive impact, and no matter how small it is, it can make a really big difference.