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1% Better is Not A Mantra; It’s a System

“Let’s get 1% better today!” Have you heard this? Maybe even said it? It’s a common mantra in sports today. This idea or mantra has been largely misinterpreted though—I’m guilty of it, and so are many other coaches. We often use this as a mantra to inspire and motivate our players and ourselves to keep working hard to improve.

However, in his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear discusses the idea of daily 1% improvement—or, “marginal gains”—using the story of David Brailsford and the British Cycling Team as an example. Brailsford story—and Clear’s main point—isn’t just about working harder; it’s also about working smarter. It’s about asking repeatedly, “How can we do this better?”

For the British Cycling Team, it didn’t take massive changes to turn things around for them. Simple things, like changing their brand of massage gels and the way they washed their hands, researching the best pillows and mattresses, and painting their bike trailer white, helped the team work smarter and more efficiently, leading to exponential gains. (You can read more here.)

As Brailsford said, “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

1% is about systematically looking for small changes that often go ignored, and then implementing them.

Extraordinary Commitment to the Ordinary

“The system is greater than the goal.”

—James Clear

Building an extraordinary team culture requires a commitment to the ordinary. Becoming an extraordinary coach requires a commitment to the ordinary. Many people in leadership roles fall into the trap of learning new methods and strategies, rolling out those changes in the next practice, and then just hoping they stick!

If we want to grow as coaches, we need a system to consistently remind and refine those commitments. Implementing those changes needs to be just as important as implementing our offensive systems or conditioning programs.

Just like Brailsford, if we want to accelerate our growth, we need a special system to remind, refine, and—as James Clear calls it—“stack” our commitments.

Systematic Ways to Achieve 1% Growth

  1. Schedule Reminders: Use your phone to schedule whatever discipline you need to grow as a coach.
  2. Culture Manual: Many coaches create a plan for their season, which includes the little things that are easy to implement but also easy to forget. In my book Calling Up I provide a guide to help coaches build their Culture Manual.
  3. Commitment Tracking: Track what’s important and use this system to build habits in your team. Read more here.
  4. Daily Journaling: Self-awareness is the first step to change! Read more here.
  5. Mentorship: Nobody should walk the journey alone. We all need a sounding board, and an outside source of support. Learn more here.

Works Cited

  1. James Clear, Atomic Habits.
  2. Matt Slater, “Olympics Cycling: Marginal Gains Underpin Team GB dominance,” BBC.