At the 1998 World Track Championships, Britain failed to win a single medal. Chris Boardman, the British team’s sole hope, bombed in his event.
Ten years later, the British Team collected nine gold medals, winning exactly half of the 18 titles on offer.
Later that year, Britain’s cyclists won a record-breaking eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. At London 2012, they equalled that gold rush.
The man who master-minded Britain’s rise to power is David Brailsford, the performance-director who last month received the BBC’s Coach of the Year award.
As the head coach of Team Sky, Brailsford set himself the target of winning the Tour de France inside five years. Bradley Wiggins accomplished that feat in the second year of the project.
Brailsford’s coaching philosophy is based on what he calls the “aggregation of incremental marginal gains”. Put simply, the theory works on the premise that a large number of small changes will lead to a major improvement in overall performance. During his two seasons in charge of Donegal, Jim McGuinness has transformed a team from Qualifier chaff into All-Ireland champions.
Here are some of the “incremental marginal gains” which McGuinness put in place with Donegal.
At British Cycling, the Secret Squirrel Club is headed by Chris Boardman. Tasked with the job of pushing cycling technology to its limits, the squirrels’ work is subject to officials who can ban innovations on the spot.
In Gaelic football, county teams look for advantages by testing and sometimes breaking the rules. Donegal are no exception. For a decade, Donegal were bullied by Armagh and outsmarted by Tyrone. But in 2012, Donegal knew all the tricks. They’ve even invented a few of their own.
The half-time interval is supposed to last 15 minutes. But there is no penalty for remaining in the changing-rooms a few minutes longer. Donegal’s opponents repeatedly found themselves standing on the pitch waiting for their opponents to emerge for the second half.
When Donegal don’t want to concede a free-kick, their tackling is exemplary. Teams are rarely gifted an easy free in the scoring zone. But it’s a different story at midfield. When Barry Moran took a clean catch in the 40th minute of the All-Ireland final, he was instantly fouled by Patrick McBrearty. Keen to instigate an attack, Moran threw the ball to Alan Dillon. But Neil Gallagher stayed in front of Dillon and prevented a quick free from being taken. Referee Maurice Deegan took the ball from Dillon, ran forward about 13 metres, and placed the ball on the ground. By the time Dillon picked the ball up, Donegal had their defensive screen in place.
Forwards often stop counter-attacks by fouling defenders. But Donegal found a clever solution to this problem. They fouled the forward. In the first-round clash against Derry, Neil McGee made a series of sorties from the full-back line. Each time he made his run, another Donegal player would deliberately block Emmet McGuckin from making a tackle on the full-back. When Karl Lacey made his breaks, the same ploy would be used to stop Paddy Bradley.
There is a popular misconception in the GAA that managers simply have to manage the players. This is not true. Players are only half the battle. The county board must be managed too. Conflict is inevitable.
The dilemma facing managers is that county boards control club fixtures, and more importantly again, they hold the purse strings. At the start of his term, Jimmy McGuinness didn’t get everything he wanted. His request for the squad to stay at the Slieve Russell Hotel on the eve the 2011 Ulster final was rejected. A London-based businessman eventually footed the bill.
In a camp where players were asked to sign a confidentiality contract, very few stories ever leaked to the press. But this one did. It was a major embarrassment for the county board.
A year later, the county board financed a five-day stay at Johnston House Hotel and Spa on the eve of Donegal’s first round game against Derry.
McGuinness’s ability to influence the county board was also evident in terms of fixtures. The day after Donegal beat Tyrone in the 2011 Ulster semi-final, McGuinness called on the county board to postpone a round of club Championship games. This request was denied. In last year’s Championship, the county board was much more compliant. Following requests from McGuinness, they postponed two rounds of Championships fixtures.
Publicly, Jim McGuinness and his assistant Rory Gallagher like to claim that Donegal are no fitter than any other team. This is one of their most common utterances. But if Donegal aren’t the fittest team in Ireland, it’s through no fault of the management team. In an interview with The Gaelic Life in 2011, Rory Kavanagh outlined his five-day weekly training regime. Rising at 6am, Kavanagh went to a gym in Letterkenny where he was supervised by private trainer, Adam Speers. Kavanagh was following a programme that was designed to add bulk to his frame. McGuinness informed Kavanagh during pre-season that he “needed to put on a stone or two”.
In contrast, Kevin Cassidy was told by McGuinness that he needed to shed weight. While Kavanagh was pumping iron, Cassidy was pounding the roads.
An exchange in the book ‘This Is Our Year’ revealed the demands which McGuinness placed on his players. Asked by McGuinness how far he had run on his daily outing, Cassidy replied: “10 kilometres.” McGuinness promptly informed Cassidy that he needed to increase the distance to 13km. The fitness of the Donegal players is revealed by one of their training routines. During sessions, McGuinness would hold seven-minute games on a small pitch. The compact dimensions increased the intensity of the games as it ensured physical contact. Three games would be played.
Defeat in one of the games carried a punishment of 70 consecutive press-ups. Should a team lose three successive games, the players would have to do 210 press-ups.
Highly complex training drills which have no bearing on how teams actually play are still hugely popular among the majority of Gaelic football coaches.
Managers like McGuinness don’t bother with these methods. For managers like McGuinness, everything stems from the gameplan.
In 2011, the Donegal players were handed a sheet of paper which detailed exactly how the team was going to play.
When he started coaching the players how to execute his defensive system, McGuinness started off by giving them diagrams which outlined exactly where each player was supposed to be positioned.
Having been shown the theory, the players were then brought onto the training pitch. McGuinness placed a huge emphasis on his game plan. Having observed that Mayo like to play a high pressing game which committed players up the field, Donegal were convinced they would be able to isolate Michael Murphy in the full-forward line. In the weeks leading up to the All-Ireland final, they worked on how they could target their captain with high diagonal passes. It was one of these punts from Karl Lacey which allowed Murphy to hit the net in the third minute.
When McGuinness was installed as Donegal senior manager he inherited a group of senior players who had endured some hard days in the green and gold. Beaten in the provincial finals of 2002, 2004, and 2006 – some of the Donegal players had started to doubt themselves.
On taking the reins, McGuinness held one-to-one interviews with all his players. He asked them about their careers, their performances and to what degree they had fulfilled their potential.
The responses informed McGuinness his players had been damaged by years of criticism and ridicule. Their confident was shredded. The manager set about applying the solution. McGuinness the sports psychologist got to work. When the squad gathered in Downings at the start of 2011, the meeting lasted four hours.
By the end of the meeting, some players were already convinced that Donegal were going to win an All-Ireland title.