Cycling, arguably, is the UK’s most successful sport both in terms of achievement and increasing participation. In the last three Olympics, Great Britain has collected 38 medals. 22 of them were GOLD. This is a remarkable achievement considering prior to this it only achieved one gold since British Cycling was formed in 1959. So, what happened? In 2003, Dave Brailsford (now Sir Dave) was appointed as the Performance Director for British Cycling. I am sure everyone has heard of ‘marginal gains’ now but it was the culture he helped create which really was the game-changer. The added bonus is that it is now reckoned that close to 2m people are riding their bikes regularly. I suppose there is a symbiotic relationship here with both feeding from each other.
From my faraway view it looks like British Cycling got the correct leader in place and then built the structure to create the environment which delivered success. In essence, they created world-class athletes around a performance centre based in Manchester. I know all the arguments about talent id and development. I am sure there was a real lack of talent when it was kicked off but I have read many of the coaches and riders accounts and the thing that has always jumped out was the character that was forming in the athletes. From the 7am starts to the hours and hours of practice on the track. This was all done for an annual fee of £3k with free board thrown in. If that is not dedication then I don’t know what is!!
Let’s compare that to the footballer of the same age in a top flight club.They train a couple of hours a day for a very comfortable salary of probably a few thousand per week. What character will this forge? Think you know the answer to that one!
There is a similarity with football in that at the top end it is cut-throat. Only the absolute best will go through. When you see a cyclist at the Olympics then they have fought there way to this point and have earned everything through blood, sweat and tears. Many will have fallen by the wayside but that is the nature of elite athletes. Compare this to football and how many have made it to the true elite level in world football. As a proud Scot, I can honestly say none and none for a very long time now.
The other achievement in cycling is getting the participation numbers up. At any given weekend now, you are bound to see a group of enthusiastic cyclists in the wind and the rain pounding along the road. Go the the local park in the wind and the rain and see how many bounce games are going on?
In Scotland the SFA have tried to change things through the academy system and the Performance Schools. We have had the last two Performance Directors (Mark Wotte and Brian McClair) both resign. I am pretty much convinced the academy system as it currently exists does not work. It might be too early for the performance schools to make a judgement. At the moment, there is no-one (to my knowledge) leading and creating that performance environment. It can’t be left to the clubs as they have their own drivers and pressures for immediate success. We need a leader with the vision and bravery to break out of our existing system (which is not working) and put in place a system that stretches from the elite level down to grassroots which develops players with the skills and character for today’s or tomorrow’s game.
It can’t be left to chance or we will get Natural Law taking over. For anyone wondering this is not about Gordon Strachan and the National Team Manager. This is about being brave and having someone tell the current administration that it is time to go. There are loads of good ‘football people’ at the SFA but alas I can’t see anyone with the balls to stand up and make the massive changes that are required.
It also can’t be left to the grassroots clubs like ours as we will do our best but we aren’t producing players on 3 hours of practice and a game per week. It needs 20 hours of practice plus 4 games per week. This will build character. How many boys do I see on our new 3G facility before school starts. A big, fat zero. If we had the right culture it would be full and fighting each other off.
My plea here is to learn from Cycling and what they have done to build participation and build an elite pathway. It can be done but only if you get the right people in place. By definition, we don’t have them now so get the right man at the helm and give him the freedom to put the structure in place. The structure and network of coaches then need to start the fire!
If all else fails, ask Dave Brailsford how to do it.