Olympians Laura and Jason Kenny on data, ‘unpredictable’ humans and winning gold

The gold-medal winning cyclists speak exclusively to Marketing Week about the Rio Olympics, the success of Olympic cycling and why humans “are the problem” in a data rich world.

laura and jason kenny

It is a little more than three months since Laura and Jason Kenny became sporting royalty by winning gold at the Rio Olympics yet trying to spot them in a crowded room can be difficult, so unassuming are they.

It takes a few minutes to realise that the record breaking, multiple gold medal-winning Olympians are in fact sat quietly on a sofa in a corner of the room chatting to each other. Being introduced feels like interrupting their afternoon plans, although those are supposed to involve an interview with Marketing Week and then a presentation on their data-driven journey to Olympic gold at Quantcast’s Supernova event.

That journey has seen the Team GB cycling squad dominate the track, winning medals, and usually gold, in almost every event. And Laura and Jason have exemplified that success.

Both were on the British cycling programme from the age of about 13 and worked their way through the ranks before becoming professional. And the programme seems to have worked.

In Rio, Laura won two gold medals to add to her two from the London 2012 games, making her the most successful female British Olympian in the modern era. Meanwhile, her husband Jason won three more gold medals in Rio taking his tally to six gold in total, plus one silver from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He has now matched Sir Chris Hoy’s gold medal record for a Team GB athlete and is just one behind Team GB’s most decorated medal holder, Sir Bradley Wiggins, who has eight, including five gold.

READ MORE: Sir Bradley Wiggins on how cycling became a £1.4bn brand

To understand that success you have to understand how important data is to the cycling set-up. Team GB’s focus on “marginal gains” is now legendary and has been key to their medal haul. But performance coach Paul Manning says data also plays a wider role.

“One of the useful things we can do is illustrate within our training programme what is working. Within any given training period, we’ve got a number of objectives we’ve got to feed back on. And data and the insights we see are a good way to illustrate success and achievement within the day-to-day working environment, outside competition,” Manning explains.

“You need to get those early markers of where success lies and work forward towards goals, as well as working back from where you project you want to be.”

Data is also used to help keep the cyclists motivated and there are a lot of factors that impact how fast they go around the track. If they have the right data and are measuring the right factors, they could potentially go round in a slower time while producing just as much ‘power’ – measure of endurance.

The problem is we are humans; we are the unpredictable, unreliable side of it. Data takes the emotion completely out of it.

Jason Kenny

“We train in the velodrome in winter and it’s freezing cold. Freezing cold air is more dense than warm air, that’s just a fact, so we will go slower. If we have power figures, we can match that up to show actually we are producing more power so when we get better kit on and it’s a bit warmer we will go faster. It is really important for motivation,” he explains.

“You can still be improving even though your times are getting worse every day. There are more controllable data point [than] just relying on the stopwatch.”

The limits of data

While Jason Kenny uses data to enhance his performance when cycling, the same principles can be applied in other industries. Manning believes sports and business can learn from each other when it comes to making better use of data. He says it’s particularly important to realise that while data can be hugely useful there are other key factors that contribute to winning a race, or executing a successful marketing strategy.

“They don’t use data on race day. Data gets you to the day then they have to use their experience and race. For us, it’s a bit chicken and egg in terms of how you get to the start line best prepared, but then rely on instinct and racing nature. It is about the science and art of using facts and figures and then applying them to the process and plan,” he says.

And of course there is always the concern that the team could over-rely on data. Kenny believes cyclists also have to understand themselves and their bodies, and what works for them, no matter what the data says.

We collect data we don’t really know what to do with but at some point someone will figure it out and then we’ll have years of it.

Jason Kenny

“The problem is we are humans at the end of the day; we are the unpredictable, unreliable side of it. Data takes the emotion completely out of it so things like fatigue will show up in the data when you might want to keep battling on as a flawed human being, so it’s good in that sense,” he adds.

“[Data] gives you a number. The obvious data points are speed and time but these can be affected by various things in the environment so by getting different data points that are more controllable we can set ourselves stringent goals and more controllable goals and then put it all in a point and hopefully go faster when it matters.”

Kenny also recommends collecting as much data as possible, even if its use is not yet clear. And there are parallels there with the ad industry, which is still figuring out how to glean insights and optimise on the data.

“We collect data we don’t really know what to do with but at some point someone will figure it out and then we’ll have years of it.

“Athletes always talk about form. People talk about it like it’s some mystical thing you get randomly, but if you can look at when you’re ‘on form’ and what your numbers were like [at that point] you’ve got references to work towards.”

He believes looking at what an athlete was doing when they performed well – or not so well – gives them greater control and puts them in the best position to do well in future. “There is always a reason something doesn’t go well and it is usually staring you in the face. And you usually have yourself to blame, annoyingly.”

Dealing with success

jason and laura kenny
Laura and Jason Kenny and performance coach Paul Manning at Quantcast’s Supernova event

Kenny hopes the success of the GB cycling team will help encourage more people to take up the sport and therefore help the team achieve even more success. “Hopefully more people get involved in cycling and enjoy it and then that will boost the commercial side, help us and push the technology on. Cycling is a great way of getting around, better than sitting in a traffic jam that’s for sure.”

Given their success, you would expect brands and sponsors to be knocking down their doors, but Kenny says they haven’t had “that many” approaches. When they do the key, he says, the key is to “keep it positive” and only work on “stuff you are interested in”.

“It’s hard to promote something that you don’t really like. For me personally, it’s really important that I stick to stuff I’m passionate about and actually enjoy doing.”

READ MORE: Olympics 2016 – Nissan and Samsung the biggest winners as majority of sponsors fail to ignite

Laura was one of a number of athletes to appear in advertising for furniture retailer DFS during the Olympics. And she says that tie-up was a “good one” because the retailer “kitted out our entire living room”.

Jason admits that while sometimes it is obvious what the link is, other times it isn’t but that DFS did a “really good job” of linking its brand with cycling. He also cites the example of a Carphone Warehouse tie-up where they played couriers that was “really good”.

“You have to keep it on subject, but it isn’t just cycling brands,” he explains.

As for what comes next, they both started training again at the start of November after taking a long (by their standards) break after the end of the Olympics to get married and go on a honeymoon. The target is to make the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Hong Kong next year, but Laura says they are taking nothing for granted.

“With the way British cycling works there are so many girls coming through the system you have to get selected. We are world champions so we’ve already qualified but I wouldn’t want to go to a world championship and take someone’s spot if I don’t think I’m good enough,” she explains.

Neither would Jason. “We are just laying the foundations so if all of a sudden we get some momentum and training is going well we can pick it up and have a crack at making it to the World Championships. I wouldn’t want to get a few months down the line and wish I had put a bit more work in because then it would be too late. So just laying the foundations so I have a platform to work off hopefully. If I have the will and the talent.”

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