The following blog post discusses some of our findings from the Pathways to the Podium Research Project, and was presented as a research poster at the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, June 8, 2012.
The number of successful sibling and parent-child pairs in high performance sport makes it difficult to ignore the role of family in the development of sport expertise. Take, for example, the Williams sisters, the Sedin twins, and the Manning family. While genetics may be a contributing factor (1), research suggests that financial, tangible, and emotional support from one’s family are critical for expert performance (2,3). Much of the research examining the family in the context of sport expertise has focused on parents (4,5). Sport-related investigations of sibling influences have typically compared first-born and later-born athletes on characteristics of sport involvement and achievement (e.g. 6,7,8,9), and/or have examined competition and co-operation between siblings within the same family (e.g. 3,10). Very little attention has been devoted to differences in sibling characteristics, behaviours, and relationships, between athletes of varying skill levels. As such, this study explored skill level differences in sibling characteristics and participation in sport and physical activity, within a large sample of athletes from a variety of sports.
229 athletes completed the Developmental History of Athletes Questionnaire (DHAQ). Athletes were aged 15-35, represented 34 sports, and were classified into 3 skill groups: 1) Elite (senior international level athletes); 2) Pre-elite (senior national or junior international level athletes); and 3) Non-elite (athletes whose highest level of competition was senior state/provincial, junior national, or below).
Among other factors, the DHAQ addresses familial characteristics and participation in sport and physical activity. This study focussed specifically on responses relating to athletes’ siblings. For each sibling, participants provided date of birth, sex, and a rating of how frequently they engaged in general fitness activities, recreational sport, and competitive sport during the time living together. In addition, they listed all competitive sports in which each sibling had participated, along with the highest level of competition reached for each sport. Sibling characteristics and participation in sport and physical activity were compared between skill groups to explore whether any factors differentiated the elite from lesser skilled athletes. For the scientifically minded, details of statistical analyses are not provided in this blog post, but are available on request – please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- No skill level differences were evident for total number of siblings; however, elite athletes were more likely to be later-born children, while pre-elite and non-elite athletes were more likely to be first-born.
- Older siblings of elite athletes were nearly 2.5 times more likely to have participated in general fitness activities on a regular basis than older siblings of non-elite athletes.
- Older siblings of elite athletes were more than twice as likely to have participated in recreational sport on a regular basis than older siblings of non-elite athletes.
- Younger siblings of elite athletes were nearly 4 times more likely to have participated in competitive sport on a regular basis than younger siblings of non-elite athletes; and siblings of elite athletes were more likely to have participated in competitive sport at the elite and pre-elite levels than siblings of non-elite athletes. This was particularly true for younger siblings.
- Interestingly, older siblings of non-elite athletes were 3.5 times more likely to have participated in the athletes’ main sport than older siblings of elite athletes; but among siblings who participated in the athletes’ main sport, siblings of elite athletes were more likely to have competed in this sport at the elite and pre-elite levels than siblings of non-elite athletes. Again, this was particularly the case for younger siblings.
This study provides an important contribution to our understanding of the role of family in sport expertise development, and in particular, the role of siblings. One of the strongest findings was the association between birth order and skill level. Despite having the same number of siblings as pre-elite and non-elite athletes, elite athletes were more likely to be later-born children. Previous research has indicated that younger siblings tend to be more athletic than older siblings, but older siblings tend to be higher achievers (11). Our results suggest that among athletes, later born siblings were typically more successful.
Additionally, older siblings of elite athletes were more likely to have participated in general fitness activities and recreational sport on a regular basis, but were less likely to have participated in the athletes’ main sport compared to older siblings of non-elite athletes. On the other hand, younger siblings of elite athletes were more likely to have participated in competitive sport on a regular basis than younger siblings of non-elite athletes, and were also more likely to have reached higher levels of competition, particularly in the athletes’ main sport. A number of interacting mechanisms may help to explain these results.
In the case of the elite athlete, through their involvement in recreational sport, older siblings may have acted as socialising agents, encouraging the athlete’s initial participation in sport (12). Later on, in an effort to differentiate themselves, the athlete may have selected a sport their older sibling did not play and attempted to out-perform them (13). Once successful, the elite athlete may then have acted as a role model for their younger siblings, who may have subsequently attempted to emulate their older sibling’s great achievements (10). It is likely that additional factors such as sibling rivalry and siblings as sources of instructional support may also come into play (10). As non-elite athletes were typically first-borns, the socialisation process and motivations to participate and succeed in competitive sport would have been fundamentally different to those described above. Furthermore, as non-elite athletes do not experience the same level of success in sport, they are less likely to act as role models for their younger siblings, which may explain the lower sport participation findings for younger siblings of non-elite athletes compared to younger siblings of elite athletes.
These mechanisms are, however, simply theoretical and further research is required to gain a better understanding of the relationships between sibling characteristics, sibling participation in sport and physical activity, and sport expertise development.
What do you think about the role of siblings in the development of sport expertise? Do these results support your experiences as athletes, coaches, and sporting parents? What other reasons do you think could help explain these results?
Share your thoughts by submitting a comment in the box below, or start a conversation with us on Twitter @pathways2podium, or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pathways2podium. We’d love to hear from you!
View our poster from the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity Conference on the Pathways to the Podium Research Project website here.
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