The Business Improvement Network

Performance Insight - 35th Americas Cup

By Harvey Hillary


A Winning Americas Cup campaign starts with a series of high-level decisions that will ultimately determine the success of the campaign. Operating Budget and how this will be financed, how to prioritise resources (knowledge, time, money) and the quality of the knowledge and skill you acquire.  It’s possible to win the Americas Cup on the 1st attempt but to do so you will require equal or greater resources than the defender and most importantly, you will need to acquire intellectual property that will shortcut your programme timeline.

In 1998 Alinghi proved a syndicate can win 1st time and the Swiss team did so by acquiring key personnel from the holders Team – Team New Zealand.  The intellectual property of these key personnel enabled the programme to refine proven design concepts and skills rather than reinventing them.  Many other very well-funded campaigns have made the mistake of acquiring highly regarded but ‘naïve’ experts from aerospace and motorsport to lead their design team.  Such choices rarely pay off.

As I sit writing this article, Sir Ben Ainslie is on the BBC News outlining how errors were made in his campaign and how they will need to make key personal changes for BAR to win the 36th Cup.  This is a personal view, but I believe leaning heavily on F1 expertise was a mistake.  This choice took them down a programme that focused all resources on modelling and simulation at the cost of time on the water.  The problem with Models & Simulators is that they must correlate with ‘realtime’ data.  Get your model wrong and the output will be wrong (as Red Bull F1 demonstrated this year with their ‘correlation problems’)

Key lessons – Red Bull won in F1 because of the acquisition of Adrian Newey.  Alinghi won the Americas Cup through recruiting Russell Coutts. In both cases, rapid success was achieved through the CURRENCY and RELEVANCE of the knowledge acquired. 

Hiding in plain site

In an age of super refinement and marginal gains it refreshing to see Team NZ continue to generate a competitive advantage through innovation.  From my perspective, the most interesting area of the 35th Cup was the failure of the media and potentially other teams to realise the true performance benefit of pedal power.

In Bermuda, media attention has been focused on the ability of leg driven grinders to generate more power and subsequently recharge the boats battery quicker.  I agree a seated position will target larger muscle groups enabling grinders to generate more power and sustain the effort for longer.  The secondary impact is the reduced aerodynamics drag which gain be gained through reducing the frontal area presented to the wind by having everyone in line.  Team NZ clearly believe this is a gain as they also keep the helmsman and wing trim behind fairing and low in the boat.  There was more focus on reducing crew drag that any other team.

Both Power and reduced Drag will deliver an advantage to team NZ, but it my mind the greatest gain was in freeing up sailors to make decisions and control other systems on the boat.  The configuration chosen by team NZ enables Blair Tuke to maintain effort while continually reviewing key performance data shown on the screen. The lower work rate prevents sensory shut down and enables his tactical coms to remain constant event in periods of peak load. 

Key lesson:  We can learn a lot from Team NZ.  It’s easy to become seduced by Marginal Gains but the Silver Fern consistently delivered highly innovative solutions that demonstrate an ability to think differently about the performance problem.   The ability to innovate starts with a culture that enables people to experiment and challenge excepted norms.  

World Class Basics

I’m a big advocate of this philosophy as its generates competitive advantage by executing the basics better than your opposition.  Funny how the All Blacks and Emirates Team New Zealand seem to have the same foundation for performance.

In this Cup, two teams did a great job in focusing on doing the basics better by doing two things: developing a stable or simple platform and by maximising time on the water.

In the Case of Team France, they knew they had a limited budget so they kept their programme simple by building one less boat and by putting the race boat on the water as early as possible.  It looked like they simplified systems so that the boat was easier to sail and that enabled them to cause some shock upsets on the water.  Groupama did the basics well and capitalised on errors made by better funded teams who seemed unable to dial in the potential of their platform. 

In the Case of Team NZ, it looked like their whole design philosophy was to develop a stable platform that would self-regulate allowing for more consisted foiling across a wide range of conditions.  The also decided to stay in NZ for as long as possible working on sailing their boat to its potential. 

Key lessons:  Doing the basis better remains one of the most effective ways of maximising performance.  Where the environment is unstable, choose usability with a larger performance window over super refinement. 

The Art of Communication

Anyone watching the Cup will have identified significant differences in how decision-makers communicate.  For me the most interesting aspect is the choice of all teams, with the exception of Team NZ and Softbank Team Japan, to have had their Tactician on a grinding pedestal.  Heart Rate Data clearly shows the effort Tom Slingsby, Ian Percy and Giles Scott are required to put in at the same time as processing information and communicating to their Helmsman.  Sensory Shut down when under stress (in this case physical stress) dramatically reduces the quality of decision making and I have observed frequent errors that could have been avoided if the decision maker was able to focus on making the right call at the right time.

I’ve already drawn attention to team NZ’s choice to use pedal power and that is supremely evident in the comps between Blaire and his Olympic partner Pete Burling.  The clarity and calmness of their communication on board is reflected by the clarity and calmness of their decisions making. 

The other point I would like to highlight is the frequency of coms on Artemis and the risk of putting noise in the system through too much input from too many people.  I listened to a lot of ‘monitoring’ statements on board and less planning statements.

Key lessons – When it comes to effective communication – less is more.  By categorising coms it’s possible to audit and refine communication by eliminating noise and targeting input on relevant information. Functioning under high physical load will impair decision making through sensory shut down.  Stress should be manged during decision points.

In Summary – what can be taken from the 35th Cup and applied to other disciplines in Elite Sport and Business: 

  • When making investment decisions consider the timeline for success and balance the potential risks associated with using cross-over expertise and technologies Vs the gains of discipline specific, current knowledge.
  • Look carefully when accessing how your competitors are Innovating.  Your attention may be diverted to the obvious rather than the true advantage.
  • Marginal Gains are sexy, but the best teams in the world continue to gain advantage through doing the fundamentals better – less variability, less mistakes, precision of execution.  What are your world-class basics
  • High Performance Communication requires teams to reduce noise through reducing monitoring statements, clear consistent action statements when the pressure is on and more planning and deep planning statements to reduce rushed decisions.
  • Beware of the risk of sensory shut down under stress.  Decision making under high physical or emotional load will be impaired so they key is to reduce the stress or plan for those decisions prior to the stress being applied. 

About the author

Harvey Hillary is the Performance Director at London based Performance Constancy ‘Peak Dynamics’. Formally Head of High-Performance for the British Sailing Team and UK Sport Elite Coach, Harvey now works with Corporate and Elite Sport clients in developing bespoke interventions to enable high-performance and sustained success with individuals, teams and organisation.

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