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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Cricket -

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)

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