“The Gold Mine Effect” and Extrinsic Motivation

I recently read The Gold Mine Effect by Rasmus Ankersen, a Danish former footballer who sold his possessions to research 6 talent “Gold Mines” – Iten, Kenya (Long Distance Running); Bekoji, Ethiopia (Middle Distance Running); Jamaica (Sprinting); Kingston, Jamaica (Sprinting); Russia (Women’s Tennis); South Korea (Women’s Golf); Brazil (Football) – in order to uncover their secrets.

The book covers a lot of the same ground as the works of Gladwell, Coyle, Dweck etc. It does have some thought-provoking chapter and sub-chapter headings like “You can’t buy your way to hunger”, “You learn to love what you do”, “We’re all quitters”, “Start early or die soon”, “Not pushing your kids is irresponsible”, “Pure love of the game is not enough”.

What I found most interesting about the book was the discussion on the role of extrinsic factors in motivating people to become great. While much is said about the role of intrinsic motivation, the role extrinsic motivation still plays a huge part. Many of the success stories from these gold mines had no other options, through education or otherwise, to build themselves  a better life than their sport. For example, the book references a study of Footballers between the ages of 13 and 19 at the biggest clubs in Brazil and Sweden, where the young players were asked why they played football:

Almost without exception, the Brazilians replied that they played to earn money to help their families. In comparison, Swedish boys didn’t mention their families. They just wanted to be famous.

The book also discusses that to become proficient, there is a crucial window of development between the ages of 3 and 12 (oddly, before people typically start playing volleyball), an age range at which parents have a great degree of control over their children’s time. In this case the book argues that parents play a big role in providing the extrinsic forces that develop their children’s talent. In other words, there’s value in being a “pushy parent”, which in many cultures has become taboo.

The book doesn’t deny that intrinsic motivation is in important. But it argues that this passion does not just fall from the sky. It has to be worked for and takes perseverance. It takes some work for people to reach a level in their endeavour where the passion for it can fully emerge, which can fuel the intrinsic motivation to become proficient. Often getting to this level requires extrinsic factors, such as having pushy parents.

I think of my own father who loved volleyball so much that he pushed me to play even though I didn’t want to (he sulked for a week when I was 14 and told him I wasn’t interested in signing up for club volleyball). Nevertheless he pushed me to play, and even though I never got very good, i developed the passion over time to love the game long after Dad’s interest in the game disappeared.

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Mum and Dad helping out as statisticians and supporting my team at the U15 Nationals earlier this year. Dad pushed me to play, then lost interest, only to stumble into one of my training sessions earlier this year and spontaneously decided to take a week off work to come watch and help out.

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3 Responses to ““The Gold Mine Effect” and Extrinsic Motivation”

  1. volleytaxi Says:

    I’ve often thought that the Kennedy political dynasty in the US was a great example of pushy parents. Whilst clearly opportunity played a great part of it, you hear tales of ferociously pushy fathers/uncles/grandparents setting high expectations and ensuring that the family members followed through and achieved at a Kennedy level.

    I wonder if society’s belief that motivation must be intrinsic, comes from that same “beliefs” in meritocracy and amateurism at the olympics. It makes sport seem purer and we’d like to think that is the way it is, rather than the more realistic and at times obvious realities of professional and semi pro sport.

  2. Hugh Nguyen Says:

    Interestingly the parent of one of my players brought this up when we talked about it a couple of weeks ago. He observed that Australians dominated internationally in the era of amateur sport, but have been less competitive in the professional era and this might be why.

    Certainly children are now encouraged more to follow things that they are intrinsically motivated by, rather than being pushed by their parents to do things.

    The book is very clear on how parents push their kids in a positive way. The parents in the book didn’t hassle coaches and administrators when their kids didn’t make the team or didn’t get made captain. Rather they would hassle the coaches to spend more time with working with them for a few minutes after training and write down the things that their kids had to work on. The parents didn’t threaten their kids punitively by grounding etc, but rather with things that tested their intrinsic motivation. EG “DOn’t want to go to practice? well in that case we’ll take you off team”…. or “you don’t want to practice piano this afternoon. we’ll just sell the piano in that case”

  3. Alexis Lebedew Says:

    Nice post – thanks Huy. I’m interested in the development window you mentioned of 3-12 years old. I haven’t read the book, but I don’t think that this is an issue when you factor in that in Australia volleyball is often only started at 13 years of age or older. To me there is a big difference between the development of motivation and the development of skill. I’m sure the value of hard work, how to push yourself, and how to strive for success are transferrable. But the love of the game is not.

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