The Triangle Of Change

This is a concept given a sports twist by Sir Dave Brailsford, CBE. It resonates with me on many levels, so I’m going to share it with you here.

The Triangle of Change is taken from the world of psychology and explains the collection of circumstances that need to occur if someone is going to change their behaviour, or in this case develop as an athlete.

First of all, who is Dave Brailsford? You’d be forgiven for not knowing who he is unless you’re a British cycling fan who loves the Tour de France. Although DB is best known for managing Team Sky, his credibility in every code of cycling dates way back to the 2004 Olympics as the Head of British Cycling. If you don’t know Dave but you’re reading this sport blog, there’s a better chance that you’ve heard of Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas – the three Team Sky winners of Le Tour under the watchful eye of Mr. Brailsford.

At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece the Great British cycling team won two gold medals; the most British cyclists had taken home since 1908. So began a Golden Age of cycling for Great Britain, winning multiple World Championships in road, track, BMX and mountain biking under Brailsford’s guidance en route to topping the medal table at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics – each edition yielding eight golds. Between 2003 and 2013, the Brits won a whopping 59 World Championships across all codes of the sport.

In 2010, Sir Dave became the manager of Team Sky Pro Cycling and bravely stated they would bring home a British winner of the Tour de France within five years. It took just two. And they won five more after that. The 2019 edition of the race was won by Egan Bernal. Of Team Ineos. The new name of Team Sky. Guess who the manager was? Yup.

Are you listening now?

You may well be familiar with the concept of ‘Marginal Gains’ which DB typically gets credited with, although it has probably been around in sport since the advent of Sports Psychology in the 1970s. I apologise here and now to Dave, but i’m about to paraphrase his comments and how the marginal gains strategy came about.

Dave is a self-confessed ‘Helicopter Thinker’ which basically means he’s not the highest expert in the fields he needs to employ, but he can see what is needed and get those people in a room together so to speak. If the intent was to bring home a British winner of the Tour de France, he wanted to make sure it was ‘clean’. And by that I mean without Doping – something the sport of cycling has been struggling to shake off for decades.

If we accept that Doping gives a 10-15% boost to an athlete’s performance, how then can we gain the same 15% in a clean manner to be on a level playing field? It’s assumed that all of the front runners to win the biggest bike race in the world train very hard – and probably do similar workouts; but some of those 1% increases could be found in poring over data from power meters, focusing stringently on particular athletes’ weaknesses and ensuring the whole team of nine riders are fully aware of what tactics to use, and when.

The part I find by far the most interesting in the Marginal Gains approach however is the attention to detail on all the factors outside of riding a bicycle – which aligns with my philosophy around triathlon coaching. Team Sky wanted to ensure their riders did everything the best it could be… recovered the best, ate the best, traveled the best and so on. And if each of these things increased the athlete’s overall readiness to compete by 1% then they were on their way to winning. So the management set about providing the best Team bus with the most comfortable seats, adjustable lighting, high tech facilities and even banging stereo system. This made sure the athletes were recovering as soon as they got off their bikes.

This philosophy stretched further into how the team would treat overnight stays: while the riders were doing their thing, the Sky Team staff would – for all intents and purposes – take over the hotel to gain complete control over what would typically be unknowns. Riders’ beds would have the exact same bedding and pillows they always had; their own chef would prepare dinner, snacks and race nutrition that they knew worked, suitcases would already be in the rooms. The predictable comfort – combined with creating a homely feeling in a circus that is far from normal – is quite easily imagined to be priceless. There were even tales of athletes being taken by helicopter between stage finishes and starts if they were remote to each other! So what’s that… 4%.. 5%?

Now it should be said that in some circles, Team Sky were the “Manchester United of Cycling”. I’ll explain. I studied in Manchester for six years, and learnt pretty quickly that the ‘other’ team – Manchester City – were much more liked than their counterparts in the same city, but around the world it was United that were idolised – everyone loves a winner. Granted it was the 1990s and things have changed markedly since, but imagine the richest team in the country being able to tempt players from every corner of the globe with the promise of a huge salary and instantly-recognisable, historic shirt. Helicopters, luxurious team buses and a team that contained a handful of National Champions was understandable when the biggest investor until 2018 was Rupert Murdoch (you must have noticed the 20th Century Fox logo on the riders’ knicks right?).

In my view, the money was a nice-to-have but it certainly wasn’t the key to success… which brings me to the Triangle of Change.

Unsurprisingly, there are three points. I love the notion of triangles within psychology: you may well have two of the three requirements completely nailed, but if you’re failing at the the third, you simply won’t progress. (more on this in a few weeks folks!). There are many and myriad versions of this theory within wellness, business and mental health. From ‘Project Change Triangles’ in Project Management, to simply ‘Change Triangles’ discussed in articles about anxiety and emotions, you can see how DB arrived at his set of rules

1. Adopt a Psychological Approach to Your Development

Basically speaking, if you don’t believe deep down that you can improve – even in the face of extreme adversity – then you won’t. To change behaviour, one must first buy-in to the belief that development can and will occur. Without this, the next two corners will be affected as well. Elite athletes often struggle with this exact conundrum, and this alone makes utilising Sports Psychology utterly worthwhile… if you have the other two points and not this, then psych is the answer.

How does this affect Process 3 methods and athletes?

There’s a Smart Arse response to this question (“Really Weekesy, you surprise me”) and that is “Just think about what you’re doing”. But humour aside, when I calmly and quietly [?!] say this to athletes in the pool for example, there is an overarching point I’m making about the whole of triathlon. As I discuss in my article Focus is your friend, triathletes need to be asking themselves often about the purpose of each workout and how success should be measured afterwards. It sounds simple, but if athletes don’t appreciate and understand what is being asked of them and why, blindly following direction alone will rarely create the development needed. However pedantic it may seem, my favourite question from athletes would be “Why?”. Okay, second favourite… the first would be : “What coffee would you like?”. If someone does not know what specific workouts are for, and how the pre-season is structured across a few months, the importance of each building block is wasted. Using again the example of a recovery ride or swim… It should be quite clear what that session is for, but if the athlete didn’t go easy they have failed. And very likely affected the rest of their training week, and perhaps their ability to go hard when they need to.

So think carefully about what you are doing, when and why. If not just ask. Adopt a psychological approach.

2. Suffering and Reward

Aah now doesn’t this sound fun. Dave explains that without the requisite amount of suffering and/or reward, a person simply won’t change habits or behaviour. As a coaching staff, he describes this as providing consequences that the athlete then works from and responds to. If the performance is lacking, the coaches can “dial up” the amount of suffering or reward depending on the ‘stick versus carrot’ approach. Using the example of Bradley Wiggins following a frustrating finish in le Tour in 2010, he was suffering greatly through willfulness, determination and COMMITMENT to his training, but his psychology let him down; he simply didn’t believe blokes with his background won the biggest bike race on the planet. Only when that was addressed did the progress really occur… and boy did it. When the rewards start coming, the suffering is entirely worth it.

There are many examples of this in day-to-day life, but I’ll use that of a job you simply don’t enjoy. You toil away month after month, there are no thanks, no pay rises and no prospects. You might be super stressed, complain often to friends and family, and suddenly years go by. That sounds awful, but if you have a roof over your head, your bills are paid and the kids can go to school… the suffering is simply not enough. Scenario One is that the pay doubles and you realise you can retire comfortably ten years early… suddenly the suffering can be endured because you can see a light at the end of the tunnel. Scenario Two is that stress finally becomes too much, you snap at someone at home and you’re given an ultimatum: quit that job or I’m leaving. Now the suffering presents itself so starkly that you have to react.

Yes, that’s an extreme example but how often do we hear our own friends and families putting up with the wrong relationship, job or a health issue that won’t go away?

How does this affect Process 3 methods and athletes?

As an Age Group athlete, often the reward is that you simply carved out enough time in your day to workout at all! But rewards can come in the shape of Training Peaks medals, PBs or a good old fashioned endorphin high. Training alone – for this very reason – is for the strong willed only. A squad dynamic will have you running to the point of throwing up as you strain to keep up with a team mate. Peer pressure can be a wonderful thing if – for example – the pool is full on Time Trial night, and you collapse at the wall having done your fastest 500m ever, while the coach leans over the wall with the stopwatch. You can of course set your own rewards for smashing a hard workout or hitting a PB: some special food, a new piece of race bling, or flying first class to the next event!

The thing is, to create your own rewards also means creating your own level of suffering when the coach isn’t there ‘encouraging’ you… and therein lies the issue I see so often with self-coached Age Groupers – the suffering isn’t great but the reward is – there’s a lot of back-slapping and high fives for just being a triathlete; there is a clear disconnect. This middle corner of suffering versus reward is most commonly the element that sees athletes plateau and not develop as I would like them to, as well as provide regular surprises on race day when the ‘goal’ just wasn’t met.

Only a small amount of athletes in this space have the characteristics (I think it’s called masochism!) to push incredibly hard even in a room on their own. I’ll go one further, these guys and girls enjoy the suffering… it actually becomes the reward. Personally, my own approach to getting up early, riding in the Pain Cave until I groaned out loud and formed puddles of sweat beneath my bike were much more preferable to the immense guilt of missing that workout. But that was me. There is actually a whole other article based upon suffering in the wrong places and the frustration that can provide to a misguided athlete, but that’s another day.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect all athletes to adore the sport and make it their life. In fact as long as people are clear and honest with their objectives and expectations, there probably isn’t a need for any of The Triangle at all. If the objective is simply to cross the line before the cutoff time, that’s still a very noble quest and should be applauded. As a coach, if the goal is not clear then neither can my input be, so clear communication – as with everything human – is vital. And I have to say… suffering isn’t always painful… some athletes go bananas when they are made to go slow and avoid huffing and puffing!

One of the many wonderful things about software like Training Peaks is that the data can’t be argued with and an athlete whose fitness has plateaued is very easy to spot. The graphs and pie charts available through the back end of TP is a great tool for explaining CONSEQUENCES to athletes and how to change them. There is so much functionality that’s it’s mind boggling but in its simplest form the Fitness Score of someone is all I need to explain the plan. If there is a goal fitness score for a specific type of event, we can – as a partnership – forge our way ahead, and adapt the plan if there are hiccups. That single number can be both suffering and reward at once.

Think long and hard about the level of suffering and reward gained from your training. Then align your expectations.

3. You must be Committed

Only now can you see how all three corners feed into each other. I place this corner last because you simply cannot carry out the first two without being committed. How ridiculous does this sound:

“How’s the job going?”
“Terrible… I’ve been suffering for years, the money is average and I’m so stressed it’s not funny. But I’ve been put up for promotion so all my hard work and suffering paid off!”
“That’s amazing, well done. What’s the role?”
“I was made for it, it’s totally within my reach and I have all the skills needed and more to be the next big thing at work, definitely management material…. I’m so excited!”
“Incredible. So it’s yours then?”
“They said I just need to apply”
“Great, do you need some help with the application”
“Nah, I can’t be bothered.”

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2 Responses

  1. You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be actually something that I think I would never understand.
    It seems too complicated and very broad for me. I am looking forward for
    your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

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