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There is more to the mystery of high-performance sport than meets the eye . . .

EARLIER this month, a few days before Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 took off into the unknown, an eight-hour journey from Edinburgh to Cyprus, via Heathrow, passed in a blur.

Charley Hull is held with her winners' trophy after the final round of the Lalla Meryem Cup at Ocean Course in Agadir, Morocco, on Sunday.  Picture: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
Charley Hull is held with her winners' trophy after the final round of the Lalla Meryem Cup at Ocean Course in Agadir, Morocco, on Sunday. Picture: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

This was thanks to Rasmus Ankersen, the Danish author of a fascinating book called The Gold Mine Effect, and Anna Signeul, the Scotland women's football coach, who lent me the paperback.

Ankersen was invited to Hampden last year to speak to the parents of children in the Scottish Football Association's high performance programme, an event which coincided with a complimentary review of his book in Herald Sport.

To recap briefly, he was a coach at Midtjylland when he and seven colleagues were asked to predict which five out of 16 youth players at the Danish club would go on to become professional footballers. Their answers were put in sealed envelopes which, when opened five years later, revealed that not one of the eight had nominated Simon Kjaer. Having transpired to be the most successful of the 16 boys under scrutiny, Kjaer is currently with Lille after stints at Palermo, Wolfsburg and Roma.

Opening Ankersen's tome as the Forth bridges slipped into distance, I was caught hook, line and sinker. Yet it should be stated that The Gold Mine Effect is not in itself ground-breaking, but part of a genre of which Bounce, by the Times journalist Matthew Syed, is an early and fine example. Whereas Kjaer - and the failure of eight professional coaches to spot his true potential - was the trigger for Ankersen, for Syed it was the fact that in the 1980s one ordinary street in England produced more British table tennis internationalists, including him, than the rest of the UK combined.

Ankersen's epiphany led him on a journey around the world to, as the title of his book implies, locations where top class sportsmen and women are being reared in seemingly impossible numbers. Ethiopia (middle distance runners), Jamaica (sprinters), Russia (women tennis players), Brazil (footballers) and South Korea (women golfers) are the sporting gold mines where the Dane went in search of answers.

At the other end of the scale the author recounts the experience of Freddie Adu, the Ghanaian American who was one of the most sought-after youth footballers of all time. Adu was feted in his adopted country, appearing on the David Letterman Show when he was just 14, yet Ankersen encountered him on a dismal winter evening when the footballer was being unsuccessfully assessed by the Danish club Randers. Still just 24, Adu is currently euphemistically described as a free agent.

At this time of year, when golfers begin to smell the azaleas, it is pertinent to remember that Tiger Woods, of whom even more was expected than Adu, provided the goods and more prior to the exposure of his marital infidelities. Given the pressure on him to deliver - as epitomised by that first Nike contract - Woods did not even blink.

Here in Britain, albeit without the global interest, there are now growing expectations of Charley Hull, the 17-year-old who won her first Ladies European Tour title on Sunday. Last year she became the youngest player to compete in the Solheim Cup, again responding with remarkable maturity to beat the American icon Paula Creamer 5&4 in the singles and help Europe win on away soil for the first time.

Yet probably not even Hull was predicted to be as successful as Carly Booth. When the photogenic teenager from Comrie was setting numerous records in women's golf, her fame briefly transcended the sport. It is early days of course, and the 21-year-old enjoyed a flourish in 2012 when she won two LET events in quick succession, but the headlines in the past 12 months have been more about glamour shoots than shooting up golf courses.

A more vivid illustration of the thin line between moving from child prodigy to international superstar - or not - is provided by Rory McIlroy and Lloyd Saltman. They were contemporaries and equals in the amateur game, turned professional at the same time, but the Northern Irishman has since risen to the heights of major winner and world No.1 while Saltman is in golf's equivalent of the, well, saltmines.

Every man and his caddy has a theory about this, but a greater insight can be gleaned from books like The Gold Mine Effect and Bounce. It is not about "talent", or facilities - middle distance runners in Ethiopia train in the most austere conditions and there is a similar tale from the sprinters in Jamaica - but usually about what is going on between a person's two ears.

A prodigious work ethic and burning desire are just two of the ingredients which propel success. Ask Paul Lawrie, the five-handicap club professional who went on to win the Open Championship.

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