30 July 2015

CREATING A GOLD MINE: TURNING TALENT INTO CHAMPIONS

Daniel Gallan

Have you ever wondered why certain countries seem to stand head and shoulders above others in a particular sport? Rasmus Ankersen, CEO of Danish football club FC Midtjylland, travelled across the world to answer that question. He recorded his observations in a book called The Gold Mine Effect: Crack the Secrets of High Performance (2012) and identified certain ingredients that talent hotbeds around the world share. Using the same theories, CONQA Sport explores how a high school in the middle of South Africa can stake a claim as being the most productive gold mine in world rugby.

Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, Nesta Carter, and Michael Frater (from L to R) of Jamaica celebrate after the men's 4x100m relay final at London 2012 Olympic Games. The Jamaican team won gold medal with a new world record of 36.84. Image Supplied by Action Images / Liao Yujie

Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, Nesta Carter, and Michael Frater (from L to R) of Jamaica celebrate after the men's 4x100m relay final at London 2012 Olympic Games. The Jamaican team won gold medal with a new world record of 36.84. Image Supplied by Action Images / Liao Yujie

The annual circus that is the international football transfer window is well under way, and it hasn’t failed to deliver on hyperbole. The gargantuan figure of £49 million that Manchester City paid Liverpool for the 20 year old, Raheem Sterling is just one deal that is enough to make your head spin.

With other dizzying numbers being thrown around for household names such as Sergio Ramos, Angel Di Maria, and Arturo Vidal, you’d be forgiven for missing the transfer of Simon Kjær to Turkish club Fenerbahçe. The 26 year old Danish centre back was sold for the comparatively measly £5.42 million by Ligue 1 side, Lille. With 50 caps for his national side as well as a wealth of European experience, Kjær is a solid professional, but hardly anywhere near a Ballon d’Or candidate.

But this story is not about Kjær’s standing in the global game. Rather, this is about the idea that his football passage inspired.

“When Simon was at the academy at FC Midtjylland, I never thought he would make it at all,” says Rasmus Ankersen, who is also the co-director of football at English Championship side, Brentford FC. “Even today, I probably wouldn’t think so compared to some of the talent we have. But I was wrong.”

Kjær was sold to Italian club Palermo in 2008 for £2.83 million (a healthy return for the Danes at the time) and won Danish Footballer of the Year a year later. Ankersen was driven to understand why such potential came as a surprise to him. What is talent? How do you identify talent? How do you grow talent? These were some of the questions he wanted to answer.

Ankersen’s journey took him all over the world to hotbeds of sporting pedigree. He studied long distance runners in East Africa, sprinters in Jamaica, rising female golf stars in South Korea, and many other areas renowned for their ability to produce production lines of talent in particular sports.

“The purpose of the book was to really make people think differently with regards to talent,” says Ankersen. “It’s not that I found a recipe on how to create a gold mine. I rather went to where the existing gold mines are and discovered ingredients that each one shares.”

One thing that they all share is a history of success that drives future generations forward. As Ankersen points out in his book, an early morning run in a small Ethiopian village might include Olympic gold medallists. This has a tremendous impact both physically and psychologically. By rubbing shoulders with greatness, young athletes are able to push themselves further and hold excellence to a higher standard. They can also clearly envisage a path to greatness as their heroes have walked the same path they’re on.

For a sport to take a hold on the culture of a nation, it needs role models that young athletes wish to emulate. Growing up in Sherwood Content, Jamaica, Usain Bolt was destined to be a sprinter. He flirted with the idea of becoming a fast bowler in cricket, but was inspired by a culture that was swept up with sprinting and would go on to dominate the sport for years to come.

“It’s not that there are no Usain Bolts in England or Germany,” says Ankersen. “They’re just playing football.” If Bolt had been born in America, can you imagine what a devastating wide receiver he may have made in the NFL?

Ankersen stresses that he does not believe that a particular race or region produces a breed of human that is perfect for a particular sport. WhatThe Gold Mine Effect postulates is that genetics only creates a gifted athlete; what athletic journey that athlete embarks on is guided by the culture that has shaped his or her life.

Grey College, a prestigious school in Bloemfontein, South Africa, is arguably one of the most fruitful breeding grounds for rugby union talent on the planet. Of the last 200 Springboks that have worn the famous green and gold, 20 are a product of this illustrious school. Paul Roos Gymnasium in the town of Stellenbosch in the Western Cape may have more Springboks overall (48 to Grey’s 45), but recent history firmly establishes Grey as the dominant rugby talent factory in the country.

Piet Viljoen is the Head of Sport at Grey and suggests that celebrating that success encourages young athletes to strive for similar glories. “We encourage our old boys to come and share their success with the learners,” says Viljoen. Included in that list of old boys are Ruan Pienaar, Heinrich Brüssow, François Steyn, and the du Plessis brothers, Jannie and Bismark. “That success is visible with Springbok jerseys displayed and boards listing the achievements of our old boys. Our learners can feel that success in the halls of our school.”

Ruan Pienaar, a product of Grey College, takes a penalty kick against Wales at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Pienaar is part of a strong rugby history at Grey that includes 44 other Springboks. Image supplied by Action Images/ Steven Paston. 

Ruan Pienaar, a product of Grey College, takes a penalty kick against Wales at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Pienaar is part of a strong rugby history at Grey that includes 44 other Springboks. Image supplied by Action Images/ Steven Paston. 

Bloemfontein is situated in the Free State, a province in the centre of South Africa that predominantly relies on agriculture and mining. Many young boys are exposed to physical activity from a young age, helping their families with chores. This would go some way to explaining why so many rugby players that are raised in the Free State are strong, tough athletes.

Grey is also an Afrikaans medium school. Rugby is considered a central pillar of Afrikaans culture and values a physical approach to the game. Playing outside in all weather conditions (often barefoot) encourages young boys and girls to exert themselves physically. The Springboks of today all spent many hours running around with their friends and siblings as young children. You’d be hard pressed to find a young Afrikaans boy living in the Free State who doesn’t dream of one day becoming a Springbok.

But culture can only provide an environment for talent to flourish. By understanding the context of the individual’s talent, a scout or manager can make a measured call. Talent, after all, is an investment and putting faith in young athletes is never a guarantee.

Ankersen explains; “You have two sprinters; one is running the 100m in 10.2s, the other in 10.6s. If I ask which is the better athlete most people will automatically say the 10.2 athlete, but that is not the whole picture.”

The 10.2 athlete may have had the best coaches, a strict nutrition programme, and an encouraging environment, whereas the 10.6 athlete may have struggled in life or been forced to train alone. The point that Ankersen makes is that an untrained 10.6 has the potential to be better than a trained 10.2. With the right environment, training, role models, and structures, the untrained 10.6 could become an Olympic gold medallist.

It is important to remember that creating and encouraging a culture passionate about a sport with raw athletic potential is not enough to create champions. While South Africa regularly produces some of the best rugby talent in the world, its football pedigree has dramatically fallen. Not since the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations has Bafana Bafana (nickname for the national football team, meaning The Boys) won a major tournament.

Football is the most popular sport in the country with a much larger talent pool to choose from compared to rugby and cricket. Role models exist as do past glories and yet the national team languishes in 70th place on the FIFA World Rankings. South African youth teams regularly compete and often win international competitions while the senior team consistently struggles. Clearly something is going awry between the raw talent stage and the implementation of that talent at the elite level. The best ingredients in the world still need to be crafted by an experienced and talented chef to create a gourmet meal. In South Africa, the talent is found in abundance but is only crafted with world class skill in particular sports.

Identifying talent and nurturing it in an environment that has a history of success in a particular sport is how you create a gold mine. Any nation or organisation that has any sort of sporting pedigree has the potential to expand on that and become a super power in another sport. The USA has the potential to become the best rugby union nation, India the best footballing nation, or Jamaica the best at basketball. All that is needed is a prospector that can find that first trace of gold, and then, with the right guidance and management, the rush is sure to follow.

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