High Performance Anthropologist Rasmus Ankersen has recently released his internationally bestselling book, The Gold Mine Effect, in North America. Speakers’ Spotlight is pleased to share this exclusive excerpt with you:
It is 5.30 in the morning and I am standing in the halflight, waiting at the intersection of two red dirt paths. It is here that I have arranged to meet a very special group of people. As I watch, a silhouetted figure appears a bit further up the path, approaching with long, effortless strides. Ten metres away from me, the figure slows down. Christopher Cheboiboch, holder of the fourth fastest time ever in the New York Marathon, is out on his first training run of the day. He stops right in front of me and says hello.
I tell him that I am here to find the secret behind the success of Kenyan runners, and that I am waiting for the training group I have been allowed to follow for the day. He eyes me sceptically, then says, ‘People come here from all over the world, convinced that they will be able to suss out the secret behind our runners by lumbering about in the hills with their heart rate monitors, and staying at the our star hotel with a view. But they’re looking in entirely the wrong place.’ ‘Where should they be looking, then?’ I ask.
For a few seconds the air between us is perfectly still. Christopher looks down at the red dirt beneath our feet. ‘There’s only one way to understand the code. Be a Kenyan, live like a Kenyan,’ he says. His glance lingers on me for a moment, before he turns about face and disappears off into the gloom once more.
Alone again on this path 2,800 metres above sea level, I try to imagine what it means to be a Kenyan. I start doing exercises to keep my body warm in the wind. Although I can still feel the aftermath of the long flight in my limbs, it does feel wonderful to be here at last.
It isn’t long before I hear a low thumping through the red earth, which gradually grows louder and louder. Then, down the hill behind me comes my training group: twelve Kenyan men and boys running at full tilt on, their tracksuits slapping audibly in the wind as they head straight towards me.
As they pass I fall in with them, bringing up the rear. Very soon my heart starts to pound. My legs struggle to keep pace even with the rear guard. My fellow runners were all born and bred here in the Rift Valley and are members of the Kalenjin tribe which, numbering three million, constitutes almost 10 per cent of Kenya’s population. On these unprepossessing dirt tracks, an incomprehensibly large proportion of the world’s best long-distance runners are produced, with the apparent efficiency and predictability of a factory production line.
It is a well-known fact that Kenyans occupy the throne of world long-distance running, but it is less well known that more than 70 per cent of all Kenya’s gold medals at international championships have been brought home by Kalenjin athletes. Since 1968, for instance, only one non-Kalenjin runner has succeeded in taking gold in the Olympic steeplechase.
These incredible statistics are the reason that I endeavour to keep pace with the group on this morning in Iten. The morning sun has now awoken and its first rays are falling on the pack that I am a part of as it pushes its way over the top of the hill. It’s hard going; my pulse is thumping and my tongue is hanging out of my mouth.
I’m here searching for the answer to one question: how can it be that a single tribe has won such a huge number of gold medals and toppled a succession of long-distance world records?
Closer scrutiny reveals that the mystery of the Kalenjin tribe is not unique. In five other places in the world we find a similar phenomenon – places which produce results that seem inexplicable at first sight.
How did one athletics club, which trains on a diesel-scorched grass track in Kingston, Jamaica, manage to win nine sprint medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics (five of them gold), one a world record and an Olympic record?
Why do 35 of the world’s 100 best women golfers come from South Korea which, with its inhospitably cold climate and astronomical green fees, scares off the vast majority of golfers? How did it happen than one Ethiopian village in the middle of nowhere won four gold medals in middle distance running at the latest Olympics? How can it be that in just a few years Russia has developed from a mediocre tennis nation into one that occupies 25 per cent of the world women’s top 40 ranking list? Why is it that every other year since 1993 a Brazilian has been named the world’s best footballer? And how can it be that in 2010, 67 Brazilians played in the world’s premier championship, the Champions League, compared to only 25 Britains and 26 Germans, even though not one Brazilian club participated?
Like the Kalenjin tribe, these other Gold Mines of elite performance leave us with a multitude of unanswered questions. With their outstanding results, they challenge our most ingrained convictions as to how elite athletes are created, and they confront us with mysteries that have preoccupied people for generations. What is talent? Why are some people so successful while others fail so miserably?
Is there a code we can crack in order to unlock the secret of outstanding performance? If answers to these questions can be found then their application will reach far beyond the world of sport – into the boardrooms, classrooms and homes of the world.
Scientists, journalists and coaches are trying to come up with such answers all the time. The problem is that their ideas are based on observations they have made at a physical distance from the Gold Mines. They therefore present conclusions characterised by oversimplification and rigidity, and unfortunately it’s often on the basis of these oversimplifications that coaches, talent scouts, athletes and parents pursue high performance. If we really want to understand why the Gold Mines are such crucibles of talent it is hardly satisfactory to study them from afar. That’s why I decided to travel the world to find the answers I was looking for –talking, studying, eating, training and living with people in these places which have apparently cracked the code of high performance.
Over a period of seven months I visited the six Gold Mines to feel for myself what it means to grow up in a Brazilian favela (shanty town) with the dream of becoming one of the world’s best footballers; to understand how much is actually at stake for a young runner in the Kenyan Rift Valley; to find out what it takes to make a world-class sprinter in Jamaica; and to learn how Russian and South Korean parents push their children to the limit so that they make it as elite professional tennis players and golfers.
This book presents my findings regarding the ingredients needed to create a Gold Mine, and shows how anyone can use this information to create their own Gold Mine of world-class performance. Perhaps you’re sitting there right now wondering how you can put the ideas and principles behind the Gold Mines to good use if you are not involved in sport?
Well, take a moment to read this list. A top performer:
• Must perform under conditions of intense pressure
• Must understand that numbers drive everything
• Is constantly under pressure from ambitious new competitors from all over the world
• Realises that last year’s record becomes next year’s baseline
• Constantly grows and reinvents themselves in order to stay at the top
• Is subject to brutal accountability: you win or you lose – nothing in between
• Must have sustainable drive, or achieving performance goals becomes difficult.
My guess is that these prerequisites and requirements are almost identical to those you have to perform under in your own industry, whatever it is. At heart, the Gold Mines are about far more than just golf, running or football. They are about the underlying mechanisms which orchestrate world-class performance, and regardless of whether we work in sport, the arts, business or science, we have to understand that all journeys towards realising potential have a great deal more in common than we might first imagine.
I have set down my conclusions in eight Gold Mine concepts, each of which delivers a decisive lesson in creating and sustaining top performances.
The eight concepts are:
➊ The secret is not a secret
➋ What you see is not what you get
➌ Start early or die soon
➍ We’re all quitters
➎ Success is about mindset, not facilities
➏ The Godfathers
➐ Not pushing your kids is irresponsible
➑ Who wants it most
Let us return to that morning in Iten. In no time, the Kenyans’ fast pace in the thin air so high above sea level almost suffocated me, pushing my body way into the red zone. Out of politeness to the new white guy in the group they slowed their pace, but in spite of this concession, just 35 minutes after I had joined them it was all over. I stood bent double with the taste of blood in my mouth, spitting onto the verge, while the twelve Kenyans disappeared effortlessly out of sight.
I reflected on Christopher Cheboiboch’s words: ‘If you want to understand, you must be like a Kenyan, live like a Kenyan.’ I suddenly I understood his message much more clearly.