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Tom Fielder

LDL Leadership Development

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How to Invest in Training like Team GB


At the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996, Team GB finished 36th in the medals table, between Ethiopia and Belarus. Twenty years later, and Team GB arrive back from Rio having finished 2nd in the medals table – behind only the USA.

The extent and rate of the change has been remarkable. The athletic talent of a small island nation has suddenly been developed from the duo of Steve Redgrave and Matt Pinsent into a 366-strong team of world-beating performers, in sports ranging from slalom canoeing to taekwondo. How has this been possible?

Well Invested Funding

As any post-Rio commentator will tell you it has had a lot to do with the sudden influx of funding in the mid-1990s following UK Sport’s partnership with the National Lottery. Three quarters of UK Sport’s funding now comes from the National Lottery, and indeed there is a strong correlation between rising funds and Olympic medal hauls.

But correlation does not equal causality, and it is not a simple equation of funding equals results. Instead UK Sport have provided a masterclass in how to manage an investment in training to achieve results. And any organisation either that delivers training or invests in it has much to learn from their example. As a representative of a management training consultancy I have provided four key lessons below.

1. Set clear objectives

Over the last four-year cycle almost £350 million was granted to Olympic and Paralympic sports. And for everyone involved, there was a very clear understanding of the objectives of this funding – to win more medals, and gold medals in particular.

Of course every investment should be made with a clear sense of what the funding is supposed to achieve. And training of any kind would not make sense without some kind of objective or intention behind it. But the nature of elite sport, with regular world championships and Olympic cycles, allows these objectives to be very clear.

Trainers, as well as anyone making an investment in training, should attempt to attach clear and measurable objectives to their training. Then both trainer and investor have a clear idea what they are aiming for, and can have a straightforward conversation about results.

2. Respond to differences in ROI

The 67 medals Team GB won in Rio cost an average £4,096,500 each in funding over the last four years. But Olympic medals do not come at a ‘fixed fee’, and it is not a case of funding equals results. As Professor Borja Garcia of Loughborough University has noted, the way the money has been spent has also been critical:

"It's not so much the amount of money but the way in which it has been targeted, invested and audited. It has certainly produced results even if some people think of it as a somewhat 'brutal' approach."

The approach to ROI is ‘brutal’ in that funding is only awarded to sports that can succeed in demonstrating medal potential, and if any sport fails to deliver on that potential its funding can be cut immediately. So whilst sailing, rowing and cycling have continued to gain massive funding increases, sports such as basketball and volleyball have missed out.

This is extremely relevant to those setting up a training initiative. Beginning with a clear orientation towards ROI, and an open attitude to its appraisal can give the project a clear focus from the outset. Being able to ‘brutally’ adapt the training thereafter in response to ROI findings, perhaps to focus it in one area rather than another, can help to support substantial overall gains.

3. Promote a culture of marginal gains

Much has been made of the impact of the culture of marginal gains on British cycling. And under the guidance of UK Sport performance directors Simon Timson as well as his predecessor Peter Keen, scientific rigour has been extended to the Olympic system as a whole. It is what Keen calls ‘success by design’ and involves replicating and building on models that work.

The idea of marginal gains in particular has helped to promote a culture of excellence, encouraging athletes and coaches to make all those fractional improvements that make the difference at the highest level of performance. “It can sound deadening at times” as Owen Gibson writes in the Guardian, “but it is the foundation for those heart-stopping moments of sporting drama.”

By weaving a culture of marginal gains into new training initiatives – for example by sharing detailed analyses of what has worked in the past, as well as giving a reasonable length of time for each client-trainer partnership to develop – organisations can help to enhance the success of the project, and embed a system that works.

4. Invest in quality – and continue the development of training staff

Again and again throughout the BBC coverage of the Olympics we heard tributes to those behind the scenes, to Team GB’s collection of coaches, sports scientists and sports medics celebrated as ‘the envy of the world.’

However, although Team GB may have wisely invested in the best training staff in the world, crucially they have also accepted that no coach, no matter how qualified, represents the finished article. In the words of UK Sport CEO Liz Nicholl:

"We do a lot in terms of people development. We are conscious when people are recruited to key positions as coaches they are not necessarily the finished article in their broader skills.

We provide support so that coaches across sports can network and learn from each other. That improves their knowledge expertise and the support systems they've got."

Trainers in the 21st century should always be open to networking and learning from others. Likewise, investors should seek to share expertise and hold dialogues between training staff and coaches. If, for example, they use different trainers for different areas of their business, they could consider offering events to bring such trainers together – perhaps with senior staff – to discuss ideas and experiences moving forward.

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Tom Fielder

Marketing Manager

Read more from Tom Fielder

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