How an MBA helped Team GB win Olympic gold medals

29 March 2017

  • MBA alumnus has helped support 15 gold medal winning teams
  • Samir Abid also supported numerous gold winning paralympic teams
  • He worked as an engineer before launching Pace Insights after his MBA
  • His firm act as the team behind the team, offering valuable data insight

There are a lot of buzzwords around when it comes to data now: Big data and Business Intelligence to name but two.

However, for one MBA graduate, the world of data analytics was already part of his job so combining data and engineering together with a love of sport made perfect sense.

Out of this combination came a business venture which has now supported no less than 15 British gold medal winning teams.

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As the ‘team behind the team’ Samir Abid’s firm Pace Insights has been part of the professionalisation of the Great Britain Olympic team, where lottery funding has transformed them from also-rans, winning just one gold in Atlanta 1996, to sporting powerhouses, collecting 27 golds and beating China to second in the medals table at Rio in 2016.

“Behind every athlete you see on TV is a team of all sorts of people - nutritionists, support staff - all these individuals come together to support the athlete and form what is known as a world-class programme,” says Samir, who completed his Full-time MBA in 2010. “UK Sport invests in these programmes, not the athletes, to create sustainable high-performance, sustainable success – this is where we come in.”

In London 2012 Samir was working only with UK Sport, the central funding body with only Samir himself as staff. By last summer and Rio 2016, the team had grown to six and now have their own offices and workshop facilities in Leamington.

Cyclist winning at Rio
Going for gold: Samir Abid's company Pace Insights has supported gold medal winning teams

“We’ve added value to over 30 different sporting organisations, including one very well-known UK based professional cycling team we’ve provided bespoke software tools and training equipment to,” says Samir.

“We also had 16 teams competing in the Rio Olympics and Paralympics, 15 of whom achieved one or more gold medals - many of those golds medalling for the first time.”

These marginal gains for Team GB are all thanks to Samir’s passion for motorsport, where analysis of a mass of data has long been a part of the winning process.

“I studied automotive engineering and worked in the motorsport and automotive industry for over 10 years,” says Samir, who worked at Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin. “In Formula One we have seen an exponential rise in data, both the creation of it and the use of it, but not in other sports. In F1 they can make real-time decisions based on as much data as possible, but this was not being done in other sports.

“We have started using data in other sports, but we are not really scratching the surface.”

It was thanks to taking time out to do an MBA that Samir saw the opportunity for using data in other sports and also gained the skills in managing people and organisational behaviour to give him the confidence to set up his own business.

“During the economic downturn in 2008, I took the opportunity to study the MBA full-time,” says Samir.

“I came out wanting to set-up and run my own business. I tried several ideas for app-based systems until a friend of mine from motorsport, who had recently moved into a new role within Olympic Sports, asked me to help with a project.

"A benefit of the MBA I found surprising was the network you build. I went for knowledge, but the people you talk to make a longer lasting impact. I'm still in regular contact with quite a few of them.

“My technical background was clear and I have personally always enjoyed developing others to understand and appreciate what technology and engineering can offer. I'm also a bit competitive and so that passion for leaving no stone unturned in your preparations for a race enables me to find strong common ground with our customers - no matter what sport they're in.”

Through Pace Insights, Samir and his team offers technical mentoring services to coaches in order to help them gain more value from the volume of data available.

Samir explains: “Through our technical mentoring services, we want to support coaches who want to, or are required to, use more data and objectivity in their role. We look to empower coaches, to become at a minimum better ‘critical customers’ of their data providers.

“We want to help these individuals gain more value from the numbers and be able to question the practitioners providing the information.

“In turn, this empowerment can help them develop themselves, their approaches and their results. The key shift is to have confidence to experiment. Judging the outcomes as learning that either confirms or refutes their beliefs. Using evidence together with experience delivers a far more valuable outcome regardless of each experimental result along the way. In this way they can see "failure" in a positive way, creating a safe platform to experiment and try things. It's quite an empowering mindshift when you see it for real actually!

“Our role is to give them belief that an evidence base learning process is valuable and relevant to them. When a robust, evidence-based approach, is conducted in practical, real-world environment the results can be startling, plus providing knowledge they can build on in the future.”

Formula One car racing
Pole position: In motor racing every little bit of data is crucial

What advice does he have for entrepreneurs looking to start a new business?

“Aside from don’t do it?” Samir jokes. "Go in with your eyes open – the big business question is whether you want to take investment or not? But the real question you have to ask yourself is what are you doing it for? That is the main thing.

“One thing I have found useful as someone who has self-set-up – when you make such a venture independently, you’ve not really got anyone to talk to: you can’t talk to family, it’s hard to talk to peers in 9-5 type roles, so I set up a self-help group of like-minded individuals.

“We meet and chat every quarter on goals, what’s going on and the like – it’s done for each other, so we can ask how you got on with a project, but we’re giving friendly nudges at the same time. Having someone to talk to is a great benefit.

“Also, be brutally honest with yourself – if it is not something you are very passionate about it will be a big challenge. It is a challenge for me and I’m doing what I love. It’s a job that is a seven-day responsibility, juggling all that – you need to understand why you’re doing it, and it has got to be a positive reason, don’t go in it just for money.

“If anything you need to prepare for having to live with very little. Ask yourself what is the value you are going to create? And then give it a go.” 

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