Revealed: The surprising secrets that lie behind sporting success
From the month of their birth to their place in the family, top athletes are shaped by far more than just coaching, as Tim Wigmore – the co-author of a new book about elite performance – explains
Younger siblings tend to be better
When Venus and Serena Williams were growing up, their father Richard always said that Serena would go on to be the better player. He was right.
What is true of the Williams sisters is a trend across sport: younger siblings tend to outperform their older brothers and sisters. This is the little sibling effect. If you have a younger sibling, they are probably better at sport than you are.
On average, elite athletes have 1.04 older siblings; those who are non-elite have only 0.6 older siblings, according to an analysis of 33 different sports. Having elder siblings appears especially important in many women’s sports: all but one of the England squad who lifted the Women’s World Cup at Lord’s in 2017 had at least one older brother who played cricket.
Younger siblings tend to be exposed to sport at an earlier age. Being shorter and slighter, they must find other ways to keep up, by developing new skills and tactics. And playing with an older sibling imbues children with competitiveness and resilience. As Judy Murray recalled of Andy, her younger son: “All he ever wanted to do was to beat Jamie.”
Being born at the right time
Aged eight, Harry Kane was released by Arsenal. “He was a bit chubby, he wasn’t very athletic,” Arsenal’s former academy director, Liam Brady, later said. Even when he joined Tottenham Hotspur’s academy, Kane was “the runt of the litter”, their academy director recalled.
The reason Kane was almost lost to the game was simple. He was young for his school year – born on July 28 – and a late developer, biologically, for his age.
In education, children born young for their school year perform worse; the same holds true in sport. In men’s and women’s sports alike, it is much better to be a September baby – there are twice as many English professional men’s footballers born in September than in July. The bias affects different positions in different ways, and is particularly great among goalkeepers, central defenders and strikers – positions that have traditionally relied the most on physique. Similarly, in rugby the relative age effect is especially prevalent among second rows.
Later-born players get less chance to impress: a study showed 71 per cent of leading English rugby youth players were Harry Kane was almost lost to football, as he was young for his school year and, biologically, a late developer for his age born in the first six months of the selection year. At the football European Under-17 Championship last year, 47 per cent of players were born in the first quarter of the selection year and only six per cent in the last quarter. The older players may not have originally been better, but after getting into the system, getting access to better coaching and simply getting motivated to practise more and become fitter, the older players then really do become better. The paradox is that the system is so skewed in favour of early-borns that later-borns who can somehow cling on – just as Kane was able to – are best placed to reach the very top: the underdog effect. A study of players who won Most Valuable Player awards across sport found that 55 per cent were won by those born in the last six months of the selection year. So while it is significantly harder for laterborn children to reach elite level, the few who make it there have a higher chance of reaching the pinnacle.
Location, location, location
Wagga Wagga, nestled in New South Wales, is a sort of Australian “everytown”.
It is a mid-sized country city, with a population of around 50,000. For a period in the 1990s, both Australia’s Test match opening batsmen were from Wagga Wagga; the city has also produced stars in Australian rules, rugby league, rugby union, golf and football. The local maxim has it that at five o’clock each day, a wave flushes a secret nutrient into the river that flows through the city. The real reasons for Wagga Wagga’s sporting prowess appear more prosaic. It embodies the mid-sized town effect: places with the perfect blend of rural and urban living, marrying the benefits of abundant space and a culture of informal play with good facilities and fierce local competition.
For any would-be athlete, where you grow up matters. In the US, children born in towns with populations of between 50,000 and 99,000 have 15 times more chance of becoming a professional athlete than the average.
In the UK, towns with a population of 10,000-30,000 produce a disproportionate number of athletes. Mid-sized towns have good enough facilities, and enough people, to ensure that talent can thrive – and parents are also often relaxed about their children playing in local parks and streets. Mid-sized towns are also small enough to ensure talent gets noticed: children in mid-sized towns are less likely to drop out and stay engaged in sport for longer.
Going to the right school
Where you go to school seems to matter little in some sports; in English professional football, there are fewer privately educated children than the national average. But in some sports, the facilities, coaching and time to play means that going to an elite school brings a profound advantage.
In the 2016 Games, eight Olympians attended the plush Millfield School, which employs 44 full-time sports coaches. Between them, this quintet won the same number of medals as Turkey.
Millfield is an extreme example of how going to an elite school can profoundly transform a child’s chances of rising to the summit of their sport. Only seven per cent of UK children attend private school. Yet, in 2016,
31 per cent of Team GB’s Olympians attended private schools, which also produced 55 per cent of the England rugby squad who reached the 2019 World Cup final, and eight members of England’s side in the ongoing Test against Pakistan.
Playing street sport
Eight members of France’s victorious 2018 World Cup squad came from Greater Paris – including Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Kylian Mbappe. Their journeys all began in the
banlieues, playing ballon sur bitume – street football. Part of the magic of street football lies in simple maths. Because games are played in smaller areas, and the number of players per side is fewer, each player gets more touches of the ball than in games with more players.
Children are also exposed to playing with older and stronger players – so they can all effectively enjoy the benefits of playing with older siblings. The very chaos of ballon sur
bitume gives players the tools to thrive and adapt in structured games.
In Paris and beyond, a healthy diet of informal play helps forge greatness. In sports like baseball, cricket and table tennis, left-handers are over-represented at the elite level by about three times
A study of the 2014 Germany World Cupwinning squad showed that the players had played significantly more unstructured football – street football – in their teens than comparative groups of non-international Bundesliga players and players in the fourth to sixth tiers of German football.
Similarly, women’s German national team players had played more unstructured football than other Bundesliga players.
An analysis of Premier League academies reaffirmed the crucial role of street sport.
The study showed that academy players offered three-year scholarships aged 16 had accumulated the same number of hours of coach-led practice as those released aged 16.
But players offered scholarships engaged in an average of nine hours each week of informal football play with their friends, compared to only five hours for those who had been released.
The benefits of street sport have also been observed in rugby, basketball and cricket.
Street sport trains the body and the mind. As the number of players, the opponents and even the size of the pitch change constantly, players are always reacting to new information. Players who play more unstructured football as children have been shown to possess superior game intelligence – the ability to anticipate and recognise situations during games and make good decisions under pressure.
Manchester City’s Phil Foden, who played an abundance of street football in Stockport growing up – and occasionally still returns to the streets with his friends – is the latest emblem of the virtues of informal play.
Who is born – or becomes – a left-hander
Left-handers often lament that they live in a world designed for the 90 per cent of people who are right-handed. Yet it is their very unusualness that means that left-handers are substantially over-represented in elite sport.
Left-handers have a particular advantage in sports that involve aiming at a target. Their opponents will be more accustomed to playing against right-handers: this is the basis for the southpaw advantage in boxing. In baseball, cricket and table tennis, lefthanders are over-represented by about three times compared with the population at large, the sports scientist Florian Loffing has shown. Right-handers have less experience identifying patterns and cues from left-handers, inhibiting their performance. Studies in tennis and volleyball have shown that, even at high levels, right-handers are less adept at anticipating left-handers’ shots.
Even football goalkeepers have been shown to be better at anticipating penalties from right-footers than left-footers. Being born a left-hander can be a sizeable advantage. Yet the greatest benefit is in switching to a left-hander’s stance. In cricket, left-handed batsmen Brian Lara, Ben Stokes, Adam Gilchrist and Alastair Cook are actually all right-handers. Switching brings a double advantage. By adapting to bat left-handed, batsmen tend to receive more inaccurate deliveries – bowlers typically stray on to left-handers’ pads. And – for right and lefthanders alike – being top-hand dominant at the crease is an advantage, aiding in their control of the bat. Remarkably, professional cricketers are seven times more likely to be top-hand dominant than amateur players, according to research carried out in 2016; the advantage is similar in baseball. So parents can tilt the odds significantly in their child’s direction by encouraging them to bat with their dominant hand on top.
Sibling rivalry: As the younger of the Williams sisters, Serena (left) was always predicted to be more successful than sister Veenus by their father Richard – something backed up by studies that show younger siblings tend to outshine the older child
Overlooked: Harry Kane was released by Arsenal
Advantage: Ben Stokes benefits from having switched to left-handed batting “The Best: How Elite Athletes Are Made”, by Mark Williams and Tim Wigmore, is out now (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, £20)