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5 questions for Rasmus Ankersen, performance specialist 10 februari 2015

Rasmus Ankersen was captain of the under 19 team at Danish football club FC Midtjylland, but a severe injury smashed his dream of becoming a professional football player. At the age of 31 he has become a bestselling author, a trusted advisor to businesses and athletes around the world, and chairman of the football club he used to play for. For his book ‘The Gold Mine Effect’ Ankersen travelled around the globe to unlock the secrets of sports talent, and in his latest book ‘Hunger in Paradise’ Ankersen writes about how successful companies should reinvent themselves to maintain their success in the future. Last December Ankersen was keynote speaker at a seminar of the Dutch FA (KNVB) about the future of Dutch football. Sport Knowhow XL wanted to know more about his ideas on scouting and developing talent.

By: Leo Aquina | 10 February 2015

1. Could you please give us a brief overview of your career path, from promising youth player at FC Midtjylland to bestselling author and international speaker on performance development?
“In my first senior game for FC Midtjylland I suffered a knee injury that practically ended my career. I was nineteen at the time and started travelling around the world, backpacking. When I came back, I wanted to become a coach. I strongly believe that the best coaches are frustrated ex-players and I became one of them. I started coaching kids and I became the assistant-coach for the under 17 team at FC Midtjylland. When I joined as a coach the club had just started building the first real youth academy in Scandinavia. At the time everybody was training three days a week and we started training seven days a week. Nowadays that’s the standard, but ten years ago it sounded revolutionary. We had great people working at the academy, and we had players like Winston Reid, who now plays at West Ham United, and Simon Kjær, who currently plays at Lille OSC in my team.”

“While I was working at the academy I got interested in the psychological aspects of coaching. I starting reading a lot about it and I experimented with mental training. This eventually resulted in my first book: DNA of a Winner. The book was equally successful and I quit my job at FC Midtjylland to move to Copenhagen, where I started working with individual athletes. Those were not only football players, but athletes in various sorts of sports. Apart from working with athletes I also founded a couple of companies and I wrote two more books: Leadership DNA and The Gold Mine Effect. The books were very successful and I wanted to get my message out in a global perspective, so I moved to London to find an English publisher for The Gold Mine Effect.”

“The book was published in English and in London I met Matthew Benham, who had read my book. We shared a lot of ideas on football. Matthew earned a lot of money calculating probabilities for the outcome of football games. Some of the smartest guys in football don’t work in football itself, they work in the betting industry. Matthew owned his childhood club Brentfort FC and I did some consulting for him. He wanted to buy another football club and I suggested FC Midtjylland to him. He bought the club and made me chairman last August. I still live in London however, because being the chairman of a football club is not a full-time position.”

2. For your book The Gold Mine Effect you travelled around the world to live and train with the best athletes and coaches on the globe. What did you find out?
“I was interested in the psychological part of performance. From the psychological perspective it doesn’t matter if you work with a football player, a dancer or a businessman. The same psychological mechanisms apply, because we are all human beings. I was looking for common denominators of successful athletes in various sports. The Gold Mine Effect is about small places that produce a disproportionate amount of top athletes. Why did the world's best middle distance runners grow up in the same Ethiopian village? Why do the best female golfers come 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 superstars? Travelling and training with those people was part of my research.”

"A Dutch kid who plays football three days a week will reach his 10,000 hours when he’s 28. These Brazilian kids reach that point when they’re 13 or 14"

“In search for the common denominators I found out that in all of these places they practised a lot more than most other people do. In Ethiopia there’s no infrastructure so kids go to school running, ten kilometres back and forth every day. In Brazil kids play street football day in and day out. Take the 10,000 hour rule into account and you’ll see how these kids become experts real quick. A Dutch kid who plays football three days a week will reach his 10,000 hours when he’s 28. These Brazilian kids reach that point when they’re 13 or 14. But practise is just one thing. The influence of role models is important as well. If you win a Tuesday morning session in this particular Ethiopian village I went to, you’re basically the fastest middle distance runner in the world, because there are so many good athletes competing. If you’re ten strides behind the guy who won the World Championships last year, you may think: ‘If he can do it, why can’t I do it?’ These role models serve as an inspiration and they also share the experience of what it takes to become as good as they are.”

3. In a video presentation on your website you state that 'at most companies people spend 2% of their time recruiting and 75% of their time managing their recruiting mistakes’. Important lessons in scouting talent are ‘what you see is not necessarily what you get’, and ‘to understand great talent is not the same as to understand right talent’. What’s the difference between 'great talent' and 'right talent'?
“What you see is not what you get is about spotting talent. You have to take context into account. In business meetings I always ask people if they would hire a sales person from Microsoft or from Apple. Most people chose the Apple guy because he works for the most successful company. They tend to forget that this guy is working for a company where customers are willing to sleep in the streets, just to be first in the shop to buy a new gadget. This guy has an easy job. So his good results may indicate less potential than an average result for the Microsoft guy when you take context into account. If you want to find undervalued talent, you have to look in places where it’s super difficult to demonstrate the skill you’re looking for. If you want to hire a service employee, don’t look in a hotel. Look in a gas station, because someone who can deliver good service at a gas station can do it anywhere. A sports example would be a well-trained and well-facilitated sprinter who runs 10.2 in the 100 metres, compared to a guy who runs 10.6 without having trained in a structured way. The raw 10.6 will probably have more potential than the trained 10.2.”

"In football there’s not one specific talent to look for. What you want depends from club to club"

“And then there’s great talent or right talent. For example, look at the NFL Scouting Combine, a big event in the United States. In order to predict the potential of quarterbacks they always subject them to intelligence tests. They think that a quarterback needs well-developed cognitive skills, because he should be a quick decision-maker. However, the problem is that some of the best quarterbacks in history scored in the lowest five percent of that test. So the test tells you the wrong thing. It may say something about talent, but not about the right talent you’re looking for. In football there’s not one specific talent to look for. What you want depends from club to club. If you want to lay a game based on quick transition, you need different skills than if you want to play a game based on possession. But the key is to start with having clarity about what you look for. Talent cannot be evaluated in a vacuum.”

4. You work as a performance specialist in sports as well as in business. What’s the difference between working in sports and in business, and what are similarities?
“The biggest difference is that business is a lot more complex. Sports is simple to understand, there’s a very clear result from week to week. What makes sports difficult is the fact that you often have many stakeholders who will all have an emotional response to your results. The type of emotion is different from what you usually see in business environments. In sports there’s more outside pressure, but business is more complex. The results in business are more difficult to measure and as a result it’s more difficult to grasp what talents you really need to succeed.”

"In sports as well as in business people often look too much at big CVs.  There’s a study about the correlation between grades of graduates at the University of Michigan and their long-term career success. The conclusion was that what made you successful inside the walls of the University, did not make you thrive outside automatically. School performance rarely correlates with work potential. The same principle is true for people in the gym, who build their muscles using gym machines. In a street fight they can easily get beaten up by a small guy who trained in a more unstructured and disorderly setting. When people train in a structured and an extremely organized environment, they run the risk of learning a lot that will not apply to the real world, which is complex and constantly changing. Because business is more complex than sports, this is even more true in business than in sports."

5. Last December you were a keynote speaker at a congress of the Dutch Football Association KNVB. What did KNVB ask you and what’s your analysis of the Dutch talent developing system?
“Jelle Goes, technical director of KNVB, read my book and he thought that I brought stuff to the table that would be relevant for the discussions they had. My new book Hunger in Paradise is about how successful companies reinvent themselves before it’s too late. Dutch football has been successful in the past and the question is how to be even more successful in the future. The Dutch youth academies are in a good state and certainly in a different league than their English counterparts. England is a very conservative football country. Innovation doesn’t come from the rich countries; it always comes from countries that have constraints. The countries and clubs with less money have to out-think the others.”

"How do you stimulate kids without developing machines? Street football helps to develop creative players"

“There’s many good people working on the future of Dutch football. At the congress there was a panel discussion with people like Guus Hiddink, Frank de Boer and Jaap Stam. We may have been looking at a Gold Mine Effect to come. What is most important for the Dutch academies at the moment? There’s a big tendency towards more training for younger players and it takes a lot of effort to make that work in collaboration with the schools. Another challenge, for all Western countries actually, is the fact that street football almost disappeared. How do you stimulate kids without developing machines? Street football helps to develop creative players and creativity is a very important talent in football.”

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