Expert Feature: The DNA of a Winner
For six months Rasmus Ankersen, an ex footballer and performance specialist, travelled the world to crack the code behind the world’s best athletes and their coaches. He wanted to answer questions like; Why have the world's best middle distance runners grown up in the same Ethiopian village? Why are 137 of the world's 500 best female golfers from South Korea? How did one athletic club in Kingston, Jamaica, succeed to produce most of the world's best sprinters? What is the secret behind Brazil's mass production of soccer super stars? In this article Rasmus presents four lessons for how you can adopt the DNA of a true winner.
1. Say your goals out loud
Yohan Blake is the man to beat Usain Bolt at the London Olympics. Blake is the current 100 metre world champion, holder of the second fastest time ever in the 200 metres, and recently he beat Bolt twice on the 100 and 200 m at the Jamaican Championship. On my gold mine expedition I visited St Jago High School in Kingston where Blake went to school. Apart from Yohan Blake, the school has hatched world stars such Melanie Walker (Olympic gold medallist in the 400 metre hurdles) and Kerron Stewart, (Olympic sil- ver medallist in the 100 metres sprint). During my visit, head coach Danny Hawthorne showed me round St Jago High School. He pointed out the wall of the stands in the school’s athletic grounds. Somebody had written across it in white paint: ‘9.98 secs. Oh My God.’ That was written by Yohan Blake when he was eighteen years old and training with the Jamaican junior championships. His great aim was to run under ten seconds and one year later he did it. He wrote it on the wall so that everybody could see it.
Broadcasting your goals to a broad audience like that has two major advantages. Firstly it may lead to connections you never knew you had because people suddenly become aware of your goal. Additionally, verbalizing your goals will help you hold yourself accountable to achieving them. If you commit to them out loud, you may just put a little more effort into making them happen in order to save face in front of others.
2. Put in the hours
The deeper researchers on high performance have delved into the history of so-called elite performers, the more they agree that their journey to success is rarely, if ever, a short sprint and is usually an exacting marathon. There is even some consensus on the amount of training required to become world-class: 10,000 hours. When you think you see god-given talent, what you really see is likely to be somebody who consciously or unconsciously got 10,000 hours.
Just take the Brazilian footballer who reach their 10.000 hours before the age of 13 because they play in the streets everyday. Or take the East African runners who run 10 k to school everyday in high altitude. Haile Gebrselaasie, one of the best Olympic athletes ever, is a good example. As he had said: ‘Running 10 km to school every day at high altitude turned out to be the perfect preparation for my career.’
It also gave Gebrselassie a very special running style. He always runs with his left arm slightly bent. There’s a very simple reason for this: he used his arm to carry his books on the way to school. Over time, it simply became part of his running style. Even today, Haile Gebrselassie runs as though he is still carrying his school books.
It’s crucial to remember that large quantities of practice hours make you good. Exceptionally large quantities make you excellent, perhaps even world-class.
3. Choose your peer group
I still remember my first early morning training session with the Kenyan runners in Iten. Although I felt in good shape, I was over- taken by one group of runners after another. My surprise was not so much due to being overtaken as to the personalities who ran past me. First came Olympic gold medallist Asbel Kiprop, and after him three world record holders – first Linet Masai, then Mary Keitany and Florence Kiplagat. It wasn’t until later in my stay that I realised that was just a perfectly ordinary morning in Iten. If you go jogging for 30 minutes as the sun rises meeting four world champions on the way is not an exceptional event. Think about that. In Iten more than 800 athletes train three times a day. Competition between them is absurdly tough, forcing each to deliver their very best every single day. If you ‘won’ the Tuesday morning practice then you’re probably the world’s fastest middle or long distance runner. This is the power of a great peer group and the reason why athletes like Mo Farah go to Iten to train for months every year.
You can do the same. Choose your peer group. Don’t hang out with the wrong people. Choose an environment with people who are better than you are. If you really want to improve yourself you must associate with people who you know will tell you the truth and push you to be the best you can be.
4. Remain a student of your game
Nothing beats a really burning desire. It’s without doubt the single most important predictor for world-class performance. This is what characterizes the top athletes like Roger Federer and Usain Bolt. They keep themselves ignited even after they’ve had success after success.
World-class performers commit to never-ending improvement. Just take Tiger Woods. In 2001, while at his very best, he took time to break down his swing in order to rebuild it. He could easily have remained hugely successful by continuing exactly as he had been, but he chose to take one step backwards to give himself the opportunity of perhaps taking two steps forward. Despite his enormous success he remained a student of his game. Re-inventing your game takes courage. It can feel scary to make choices that will make you worse off tomorrow but better off in six months. If we want to be successful in our lives it’s important to remember that change and renewal shouldn’t happen when it’s necessary. It should happen whenever possible.
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