Thoughts on the Olympics — The Secret of “Marginal Gains”

So dominant was Brailsford’s squad in Beijing – seven gold medals from nine events – that the sport’s governing body rewrote the rules for London, scrapping events of British strength and limiting each country to one rider per event. There will be no all-British finals in London.
BBC sport, in late July

How well did that work?  In London, in ten events on the track against the best that the rest of the world could manage, they won seven golds, one silver, and one bronze.  In the tenth event, they were fast enough to win gold or silver, but were disqualified.

On the roads, in four events they won a gold, a silver, and a bronze.  In the Tour de France, the greatest cycling event of them all, they took first and second overall, and won multiple stages.

Dave Brailsford is the Performance Director of British Cycling (the rulers of the world in Olympic cycling) and Team Principal of Team Sky (the now-dominant force in professional cycling). From the link above:

Team Sky think of everything. You name it, they’re already doing it.

Their mechanics work in conditions that would put some surgeons to shame, laundry technicians make sure the riders get their own sheets in every hotel….

Near the end of the cycling competition of the Olympics, Brailsford went on BBC Breakfast and explained his secret.

“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,” he explained, without looking at all like the evil mastermind of a mysterious sect.

“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.”

Christian LIBERTY!!! Vigilantes

There are many things in the Christian life that are the spiritual equivalent of a cyclist sleeping in the right position or washing his hands well.  And if anyone dares to suggest that it might be a good idea to adopt those practices, the “Christian LIBERTY!!! Vigilantes” will rise up as one, rapidly build straw man arguments, and then knock those straw men down with great force.

“The Bible doesn’t say you can’t do X (or you have to do Y)!”  “Who are you to tell me what I have to do?”  “That is so LEGALISTIC!!!”  “You are living in BONDAGE!”  “We aren’t under the Law anymore!  We have LIBERTY in Christ!”  “I know someone who is a spiritual giant, a lot more spiritual than you, and he doesn’t do what you are describing!  Do you think you are better than Mr Z?”  And so on….

All you have to do is wander around Christian sites on the Internet or most evangelical churches for a while and you’ll encounter the Christian LIBERTY!!! Vigilantes.

Answering the Vigilantes

Sleeping in the right position, or washing your hands well, is not in the rule book.  If you wash your hands well, you still might get ill, and that illness might so damage your training or performance that it costs you a gold medal.  On the other hand, if you don’t wash your hands well, you might still never get ill, and you might win a gold medal.  You won’t be disqualified for not washing your hands, you won’t be guaranteed a medal if you do, and you won’t be guaranteed not to get a medal if you don’t.

No other cyclist has the authority to tell you to wash your hands well.  You have the liberty to not wash your hands well — no one is disputing that.  (Though if you don’t, you run the risk of your teammates thinking you aren’t all that serious about winning the race, and wishing they had a different teammate.)

Maybe we can learn something from British cycling.

Victoria Pendleton:

“You have to be somewhere between exceptional and phenomenal.”

That’s tough. It’s difficult to maintain those standards. Chris Hoy manages it but I found it hard.

“They used to be mocked for this sort of thing.”  Yes, they did, but if you are trying to be “somewhere between exceptional and phenomenal,” learning to wash your hands well is a good idea.  It’s one of those little things that add up to make a big difference.  It’s hard to argue that British Cycling (and Team Sky) have been wasting their time with all these “little things” when you look at their success.

Laying Aside Every Weight

Hebrews 12:1-2

1 Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
2 Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Previously in this series (links at the bottom) I wrote about the sins which easily beset us, about blatant rebellion, and about falling into sinful traps because we were careless about sin. In this post, I’m talking about “laying aside every weight.”

In the Christian life, there are many things that are not sin but are not helpful.  They are weights that hinder us.  Heavy boots are not against the rules, but no one ever won an Olympic medal in the marathon while wearing them.  Similarly, there are many things that are not sin, not against the “rules” of the Christian life, but they simply don’t help.  We are commanded to lay those aside as well.  They are the equivalent of shedding the heavy boots, of using the same pillow when you travel, of checking for bedbugs and making sure the bedding is clean in the hotel, of washing your hands well.

If we want to be “somewhere between exceptional and phenomenal” as Christians, we need to lay aside every weight, every hindrance.  We won’t just say, “What does the Bible forbid, so I can avoid that?”  We’ll say, “What can help me, even if just a little bit, to be more godly, to live a more holy life, to be more charitable, to better represent Christ?  Where can I improve an area of my life, even if it is only 1% of my life and I can only improve that 1% by 1%?”

Do these things make us more holy?  No, of course not, for only God makes us holy.  Does doing them make us a better Christian than everyone who doesn’t do them?  That’s silly — we’re not talking about sin here.  We’re talking about weights that hinder us, not sins — and in some cases, the things that hinder me might not hinder you, or vice versa.

But the principle of “laying aside every weight” is not optional.  If a Christian is not willing to look at the weights that are hindering him, and lay them aside, he is not obedient to the command of Hebrews 12:1-2.

So, What are These “Weights”?

By now, some of my readers may be saying, “Come on, Jon, get to the good stuff, so we can have some controversy!  What are you telling us to lay aside?”

If that’s you, I charge you with being a lazy brain, you should work it out for yourself — but I’ll give some examples.  (Note to Christian LIBERTY!!! Vigilantes — go read the stuff up above again.  Three times. :))  This list is NOT a list of things you must do.  It is not things that every Christian should do.  It is far from complete.  I provide it, not as a guide, but as some examples of the kind of thinking that is involved in laying aside every weight.  Others may safely make different conclusions in some of these areas.  No one can safely decide not to consider their lives for the weights that hinder them as they run the Christian race.

I have found the following things helpful:

  • I don’t have a telly.  I finally got one so we could use the Wii, but it isn’t programmed to use to watch television shows.  It is not sin to own or watch one.  It IS sin to watch a lot of things some Christians watch on it.  It can easily become a weight, in use of time.  Not only that, I don’t want to use the Lord’s money to pay the BBC license fee.
  • I don’t read blogs every day, and some of the blogs I read I only hit once a week or so.  They can quickly become a weight in our use of time.
  • I avoid Internet sites that “make me mad.”  Are they really helping me keep “looking unto Jesus,” even if they are saying things that I agree with?  Why should I spend my time with someone who is stirring me up to unrighteous anger, or fear, even if they are “right”?  As long as we have an opportunity to influence government, political matters are an important decision, but most political discussion becomes simply a weight, a great place I can pick up a “marginal gain” — by dumping it.
  • Years ago, long before I was a pastor, we established a rule for ourselves — we wouldn’t miss church unless it was something important enough to miss work.  It would take more than a sniffle for me to miss work when money was very tight for us, and it should take more than that to keep me from my responsibility to encourage my brothers and sisters, to learn of God’s Word, and to worship Him in fellowship with others.  We used our personal rule to help establish patterns that would give us gains in our Christian life.
  • Some months back, I decided to get up with the alarm, first time.  No snooze button, no lying in.  If I was going to need some extra sleep, I should change the alarm before going to bed, or plan on taking a nap.  The discipline of getting up and getting going has helped me use my time better.  It wasn’t “necessary,” because I work at home, but for me it has been a “marginal gain.”
  • I enjoy my treats, but in general we keep a healthy diet.
  • As a general rule, I give to the church every week, even though my salary is not paid on a weekly basis.  The habit helps prevent forgetting or neglecting an important responsibility.  It also helps build the habit of planning ahead, because I have to be sure I have money on hand.
  • We try to manage our finances with some margin so we are able to give to the church and give to others as and when we believe the Lord would have us do so.
  • We don’t gamble, not even the lottery or bingo.  Some say gambling is sin, and I would agree, but the Vigilantes might dispute it.  This I know — no one was ever strengthened in their Christian life by gambling, many have become sinfully enslaved, and most who do it have wasted God’s money, so debate with the Christian LIBERTY!!! Vigilantes does not interest me.  If it isn’t a sin that besets, it’s a weight to lay aside.

Some of these are in close proximity to sin, others not so close.  If you don’t get up with your alarm first time, it isn’t sin — but laziness is.  Rising with your alarm will not make you unlazy (I don’t care if that’s a word or not, and I’m too lazy to look it up :)), but it will help if you struggle against laziness, as well as helping you use time well.  If those laziness and time usage aren’t an issue for you, and you like to hit the snooze button once or twice before getting up, this “weight” may not be hindering you.  The point is not alarm clocks or any other specific I’ve mentioned.  The point is we’re told to lay aside every weight, and that includes those which provide only a small marginal gain.  It is the responsibility of each believer to examine our lives for the weights that need to be laid aside.

Looking Unto Jesus

Hebrews 12:1-2

1 Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
2 Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.

We have sufficient reason for doing all we can to be “somewhere between exceptional and phenomenal.”  When we consider Christ, all He has done for us, when “we love Him because He first loved us” (I John 4:19), then we want to lay aside every weight.  We’ll lay aside our “Christian LIBERTY!!! Vigilante” mind-set, and replace it with one that honestly asks, “Hindrance or help?  Is this weighing me down or working for me?  Is there a marginal gain here?  Should I be washing my hands better?”  I think we can safely say that Christ has done enough to motivate us to that view.

The Christian life is not about merely figuring out the rules, and keeping them.  That’s part of it, for Jesus said if we love Him we will keep His commandments.  But love goes beyond the rules.  A loving husband doesn’t only want to do what is required of a husband, he wants to be the kind of husband that is “somewhere between exceptional and phenomenal.”  Loving parents don’t just want to change the nappies, clean up what needs to be cleaned up, and teach their kids not to blow up the neighbours’ houses.  They want to be excellent parents, for the sake of their children.

So also, if we love Christ, we’ll want to change even the little things, the things that others might think are a little bit silly, looking for those “marginal gains.”  The Christian LIBERTY!!! Vigilantes may scoff or rage at the decisions you make, but if we make decisions to please them, we’ve gone far from the race He has set before us.

Thoughts on the Olympics — Faith, Focus, Finish
Thoughts on the Olympics — He Wanted to Get Caught
Thoughts on the Olympics — “Not Something We’ve Been Too Concerned About”

Thoughts on the Olympics — The Race Set Before Them

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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3 Responses to Thoughts on the Olympics — The Secret of “Marginal Gains”

  1. Ruth Gleason says:

    These thoughts on the Olympics have been interesting, challenging, and inspiring. I’m taking a look at the “weights of being elderly”. Not an easy phase of life, but none of the phases have been easy.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      I meant to answer this, but somehow the weights of being on sabbatical interfered. There’s only one way to lay aside the “weights of being elderly,” and we’d rather you not do that quite yet. 🙂

      Those aren’t really “weights” in the context of this verse, they are simply the last few laps of “the race that is set before you.”

  2. Pingback: Around the Web–9/19/12 » Proclaim & Defend

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