Can Dave Brailsford reinvent England’s World Cup wheel?

Updated: May 29, 2014

I wonder whether Wayne Rooney knows his echelon from his elbow? Does he actually appreciate his domestiques and soigneurs? He probably thinks Keirin is the young lad that cleans his boots after the game. 

But all this could soon change.

We heard this week that Roy Hodgson had invited Sir Dave Brailsford, former GB cycling guru and Team Sky supremo, to address the England squad ahead of their friendly match against Peru this Friday (May 30).

“I bet the world is full of players who reflect back on tournaments they have had and have said, ‘I wish I had done a bit more, I wish I had concentrated a bit more, I wish I had known then what I know now’,” Hodgson told reporters last month. “Maybe Brailsford can put a few thoughts in their head.”

But before the players wake up in a cold sweat, fearful that they may have to swap their Porsche for a Pinarello, they should know there is plenty to learn from the mastermind behind Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome’s Tour de France victories.

Brailsford, 50, has mentored and tailored his team of über fit cyclists to 30 Olympic medals, 49 Paralympic medals and 49 world championship golds since taking the helm in 2004. Under his leadership, Team GB has become the most successful track cycling team in modern history.

So if, maybe like Wayne, your cycling knowledge only stretches as far as giving backies and performing bunny hops, here’s how the two-time BBC Sports Personality Coach of the Year can help the Three Lions break away from the peloton at this summer’s World Cup:

Unlike cycling, donning a yellow jersey in football doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ahead of the opposition – just ask Chris Hughton and Neil Adams – and shaving your legs to improve acceleration by one tenth of a second won’t win a Premier League. The two disciplines are almost alien to each other.

But Brailsford hasn’t been employed to persuade the players he can make them better footballers by jumping on a bicycle. His winning mentality and obsessively articulate approach under intense pressure can be a lesson to any athlete, whilst his expertise in nutrition, biomechanics and dissection of physiology can be advantageous in all sports.

“People talk about the zone. Switch off the frontal lobe, emotional engagement,” he said, when asked to provide an instance of how football can learn from his cycling successes.

“Penalty kicks are a great example of how silencing the inner chimp would be beneficial.”

Frontal lobes, emotion regulation and gagging imaginary primates sounds somewhat complicated. It’s certainly a lot to consider when you’re staring down Gianluigi Buffon from 12 yards out. But upon closer inspection, the idea couldn’t be any simpler if it tried.

Brailsford underpins his success down to Team Sky’s famous philosophy of ‘marginal gains’: the improvement of seemingly trivial exercises to create a cumulative effect.

“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 improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together,” Brailsford explained during a BBC interview.

“There’s fitness and conditioning, of course, but there are other things that might seem on the periphery, like sleeping in the right position, having the same pillow when you are away and training in different places.

“Do you really know how to clean your hands? Without leaving the bits between your fingers?

“If you do things like that properly, you will get ill a little bit less.

“They’re tiny things, but if you clump them together, it makes a big difference.”

Now this doesn’t mean we should expect Hodgson to discipline players found guilty of failing to clean their teeth before bedtime, but preparation is one area England must drastically improve. Which is why the appointment of Brailsford is a smart one.

He will encourage the players, some of which only have one more chance to compete on the world stage, to embrace the pain, nutrition, lifestyle and sacrifices required to win. Without these vital characteristics, it doesn’t matter how much talent this side has, they will never achieve sustainable success.

“When I was growing up, the basic idea was that we were a nation of losers,” Brailsford sums up nicely.

“People just accepted that countries like Australia were more resolute and tough-minded. We Brits were jolly good sports, but we couldn’t really cut it. I never bought into any of that. I believed that if we applied science and teamwork, we could take on the world.”

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