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What's the Secret?

By TLF Research

Whether it’s getting the best out of your managers at work, your customer service advisors in a contact centre, your assistants in a store, your actors on the stage or your athletes on the track, what’s the secret? Last year at The Leadership Factor’s annual Customer Insight Conference, Matthew Syed spoke very persuasively about the concept of 10,000 hours of purposeful practice as the differentiator. The keynote speaker at this year’s conference is Adharanand Finn, author of “Running with the Kenyans”, which was short-listed for the William Hill 2012 Sports Book of the Year prize. Finn spent six months living as well as running with the Kenyans to discover their secret. As you’ll see, there is some support for Matthew Syed’s 10,000 hours, but that’s not the only factor. The author of “Running with the Kenyans” now takes up the story.........

"You want to know what the secret is? That there is no secret." Brother Colm O’Connell, a retired Irish priest and one of Kenya’s top running coaches, is almost spitting with delight as he talks to me. We’re standing in the grounds of St Patrick’s school in Iten, Kenya. On the grass in front of us, his athletes are going through their warm-up drills. Among them is the tall figure of David Rudisha, the 800m Olympic champion and world record holder. 

Colm may joke about people looking for the secret, but something is going on here. Kenya was so disappointed to only win 11 running medals at the 2012 Olympics that it launched a public inquiry after the Games. At the World Athletics Championships the year before, Kenya had won an incredible 17 medals in the middle and long distance running events. Even with home advantage and the heroics performed by Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis and co, Great Britain only won four medals on the track in London.

In marathon running, the east Africans are even more dominant. In 2011, the world’s top 25 fastest runners – in what is probably the world’s most universal and accessible sport – were all from Kenya. In 2012, the top 49 runners were all from either Kenya or its east African neighbour, Ethiopia. So why, exactly, are they so good? 

For years the golden boy of British distance running, Mo Farah, struggled to even make the finals on the world stage. In interviews he has repeatedly asserted that everything changed for him the day he moved into a house in south-west London with a group of top Kenyan runners. “To see them just eat, sleep and train and nothing else was a big shock for me,” he said recently. 

Farah was already the top British runner at the time, but the level of dedication he saw from the Kenyans was a revelation. 

Hard work and dedication

Yet up in Kenya’s Rift Valley there are thousands of runners living like this, training with an intense, almost monastic focus. Every morning, in the town of Iten, where I lived for six months, you can see them everywhere, striding past in a blur of faded wind jackets and Lycra, like commuters in any other city.

“This is the bit people miss when they look for the secret,” says Brother Colm later, as we watch his athletes race each other up and down a steep hill. Sheer hard work and dedication, that’s the secret, he says. But can the explanation really be that simple? The answer is both yes and no. 

Running to school

Virtually every Kenyan runner comes from a poor, rural background. From an early age they run everywhere. I had always thought the oft-recounted story of Kenyan children running miles to school every morning was a romanticised myth, but there they are, their pencil cases rattling in their schoolbags, chugging along, sometimes before the dawn has even broken. Daniel Komen, the world record holder at 3,000m, told me: “Every day I used to milk the cows, run to school, run home for lunch, back to school, home, tend the cows. This is the Kenyan way."

One top coach – who has at least six world champions on his books – told me that it takes ten years of training to build enough of an endurance base to be good at long-distance running. “By the time a Kenyan is 16,” he said, “he is already there.”

The life of a western athlete, we are constantly told, is one of hard work and sacrifice. But these things are relative, as Farah found out. For the Kenyan runners, hard work is just part of daily life, ingrained in them since birth. Dedicating themselves to running doesn’t require any special sacrifice. In fact, in Kenya the life of an athlete is one of relative comfort. Eat, sleep and run. It beats digging the earth all day with a hand plough.

Role models

For Kenyans, their focus is sharpened by the success they see around them. Up in the Rift Valley, every village has its star runner, someone who has gone off to win a world title or some big city marathon, and returned with enough money to buy a plot of land, a cow and a big car. There are role models everywhere. The children look around them and say, when I grow up, I want to be a runner. 

I met a man in Iten who was trying to start a cycling team. His thinking was that if they were so good at running, they might be good at cycling, too. He was offering good money to join his team, but nobody wanted to sign up.

“They all want to be runners,” he said. “There are no Paul Tergats or David Rudisha’s in cycling.”

Bare feet, altitude and carbohydrates

So here you have a population who from a young age have been running everywhere, mostly in bare feet – which gives them perfect running form, and stronger feet and legs – and who all aspire to become athletes. Throw in the fact that they all grow up at altitude, which increases the blood’s ability to carry oxygen (a good attribute for long-distance running), and eating a diet full of carbohydrates and very little fat, and you have the perfect recipe for producing great runners. 

Poverty

Underpinning all their efforts is the constant spectre of poverty. For every successful Kenyan athlete, there are ten others training in the hope of success. For them, making it as a runner, even modestly, is their only chance of escape. 

Dr Yannis Pitsiladis from the University of Glasgow has spent 10 years studying Kenyans, conducting research into why they are so good at long-distance running. He agrees that it is due to this perfect concoction of factors. I ask him, however, if he can put one reason above the others as the most important. 

“Oh, that’s tough,” he says, thinking hard for a moment. Then he says pointedly: “The hunger to succeed.” 

“Look,” he says. “My daughter is a great gymnast, but she probably won’t become a gymnast. She’ll probably go to university and become a doctor. But for a Kenyan child, walking down to the river to collect water, running to school, if he doesn’t become an athlete then there are not many other options. Of course, you need the other factors, too, but this hunger is the driving force.”

Poverty exists in many other places, of course, and the will to escape it is not unique to Kenya. The difference, however, is that in Kenya that will is channelled into running. Every last drop of it. 

The importance of that will to succeed was clearly illustrated to me one day when I asked one of the Kenyan coaches why the athletes ran faster every time we came to a steep hill. My natural (and to me, logical) inclination, when going up a hill, has always been to slow down.

“That’s because they see the hill as an opportunity,” he said, smiling, knowing the answer would bamboozle me. “An opportunity to train harder, to run harder.”

Genetics?

Many people point to Kenyans’ dominance in running, and say it must be down to genetics. The big problem with this argument, however, is the lack of scientific evidence. Dr Pitsiladis and others have been conducting research on this for years and have so far come up with nothing. Unless they do, we’ll have to continue to concur with Brother Colm, that there is no secret, unless you count an incredible level of dedication, borne out of a hard, physical life that, as Brother Colm puts it, “makes them strong, disciplined and motivated to succeed”. So motivated that every hill represents an opportunity. No wonder we can’t keep up.

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