Getting 1% Better Daily Should Be More Than a Talking Point

A phrase often repeated in gyms around the country is, “let’s get 1% better today.”  I’m not sure players even know what the term means and has the equivalent of “let’s go guys”.  Small, incremental, 1% gains is a proven concept that began in the development of the British cycling team in advance of the London Olympics. However, the idea commonly termed “marginal gains” or “improve by 1%” has morphed into a cliche with little substance or impact on the athletes. One of the reasons is the coaches who throw out the notion of incremental gains don’t give the athletes a roadmap for accomplishing these gains.

David Brailsford coined the phrase marginal gains during his tenure as Performance Director for British Cycling. He explained the concept in this manner.

“The marginal gains philosophy requires you to look at every single aspect of what you do so you can try and improve it. It looks at every aspect of performance and tries to improve each a little bit— even just a tenth of a percent. If you find a training technique that makes an athlete that tiny bit stronger, it alone might not have a huge effect on a race. But if you can stack those tiny improvements on one another, finding a bit in tires and a bit in the wheels and a bit on the track surface and a bit in nutrition supplements— well, soon those marginal gains begin to add up to big gaps between you and your competition.”

Sport is competitive. At the higher levels of the game, it is intensely competitive. There will be a score kept, and there will be winners and losers. Olympic medals are awarded based upon performance. The demands of the highly competitive athlete are mandating the pursuit of small competitive advantages that might lead to victory.  Coaches need to consider every possible avenue to provide their athletes with the best opportunity for improvement. This concept doesn’t automatically translate to practice more and work harder. Many times it requires being smarter with how you allocate time on the court or the off-court activities by the athlete that impact on-court performance.

An example of pursuing a marginal gain would be the Stanford men’s basketball team. They volunteered for a study that focused on the benefits of additional sleep to performance. Eleven players used motion-sensing wristbands to determine how long they slept. On average, the players slept just over 6.5 hours a night. For two weeks, the team kept to their regular schedules, while researchers measured their performances on sprint drills, free throws, and 3-point shooting. Subsequently, the researchers asked the players to sleep as much as they could for five to seven weeks, with a goal of 10 hours in bed each night. Their actual time asleep, as measured by the sensors attached to their wrists, went from an average of 6.5 hours to nearly 8.5 hours. The results were startling. By the end of the extra-sleep period, players had improved their free throw shooting by 11.4 percent and their 3-point shooting by 13.7 percent. There was an improvement of 0.7 seconds on the 282-foot sprint drill. Every single player on the team was quicker than before the study had started.


In 2007 Steph Armijo founded Yoga42 a company established to work with professional athletes and teach yoga to individuals and teams.  To quantify the benefits of yoga and performance and athlete recovery, Armijo performed a study of high school and collegiate baseball pitchers. The athletes performed tests on a range of motion, jump force, and isometric shoulder strength using six wearable Motus motion sensors and KineticPro resistance bands with force sensors. The study included ten high school and college pitchers in Florida, split evenly between a control group and a yoga group. The results were promising. Four variables—pelvis flexion, non-dominant shoulder abduction, non-dominant shoulder internal rotation, and dominant trunk rotation—all showed significant improvement among pitchers in the yoga class.

“Yoga speeds the recovery process of several key fatigue markers, and may offer more physical benefits than has previously been considered.”

When you associate soccer and the NFL, it is usually with field goal kickers. However, soccer is becoming instrumental in off-season activities for players in all positions. Former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck grew up on soccer while living abroad. While his father, former Houston Oilers quarterback Oliver Luck, worked as a sports executive in England and Germany, Andrew was a skilled midfielder—one who was learning how to play quarterback by setting up others on the soccer field.

“Throwing the ball is all about angles. To see the angles and take advantage of the angles. Soccer is great for that,” Oliver Luck said. “I’m a big believer that football players, particularly quarterbacks, need to play more than football, even if they aren’t that good at the other sport.”

From a more cognitive perspective, we all want our players to assimilate the information presented in training sessions. What is the best way to do this? Many studies have shown that writing down key aspects is superior to handouts or laptops for committing information to memory. Research Psychologists Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles,  did a fascinating study  Research Link investigating just how the inefficiency laptops are for note-taking in classrooms. Earlier studies have argued that laptops make for poor note-taking because of the litany of distractions available on the internet. Their experiments yielded a counterintuitive conclusion: Handwriting is better because it slows the learner down. By slowing down the process of taking notes, you accelerate learning.

In my role as the USA U-18 coach, I only provided players with notebooks and pens. They would write down information that was deemed essential. There were no handouts, and there were frequent exams, formal or informal, to review the critical material.

These are examples of how focusing upon different aspects of the daily routine of the athlete might impact performance are accomplished with off-court activities. There is no shortage of on-court activities that could be an area of focus for skill development.  The coach needs to work in a collaborative environment with the athlete to pursue these small, incremental improvements in performance.  In what areas might a coach pursue marginal gains?  Every program and athlete is different, so there is no cookie-cutter approach that will guarantee results for everyone.  However, a collaborative effort on behalf of the athlete and the coach is required to identify possible areas of study.  Then, we need to develop an appropriate metric to monitor results.

The takeaway is for the coach to not just talk about getting 1% better, but have a plan on how to accomplish this target. How important is this concept for the volleyball coach? James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, demonstrated the graph of performance improvement over a year.  


In volleyball, if you sideout 1% better than your opponent, then play 100 points of volleyball, you will score over 60 points—the 1% compounds with each rally.

It is a worthy investment of time for the coach to identify and pursue marginal gains in appropriate areas.  If we keep getting better every day, you won’t have to worry about the competition.  The results will take care of themselves.


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