Faster, higher, stronger… and younger? Birth order, sibling sport participation, and sport expertise development

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.

Venus & Serena Williams

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.

 Methods

 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 podium@yorku.ca.

Daniel & Henrick Sedin

Key Results

  • 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.

Discussion

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.

Trevor, Ian, & Gregg Chappell

References

  1. Tucker, R., & Collins, M. (in press). What makes champions? A review of the relative contribution of genes and training to sporting success. British Journal of Sports Medicine.
  2. Bloom B. S. (Ed.). (1985). Developing talent in young people. New York: Ballantine Books.
  3. Côté, J. (1999). The influence of the family in the development of talent in sport. The Sport Psychologist, 13(4), 395-417.
  4. Horn, T. S., & Horn, J. L. (2007). Family influences on children’s sport and physical activity participation, behavior, and psychosocial responses. In G. Tenenbaum, & R. C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (3rd ed., pp. 685-711). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  5. Côté, J., & Hay, J. (2002). Children’s involvement in sport: A developmental perspective. In J. M. Silva III, & D. E. Stevens (Eds.), Psychological foundations of sport (pp. 484-502). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  6. Abel, E., & Kruger, M. L. (2007). Performance of older versus younger brothers: Data from major league baseball. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 105, 1117-1118.
  7. Flowers, R. A., & Brown, C. (2002). Effects of sport context and birth order on state anxiety. Journal of Sport Behavior, 25(1), 41-56.
  8. Hall, E., G., Church, G. E., & Stone, M. (1980). Relationship of birth order to selected personality characteristics of nationally ranked olympic weight lifters. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 51(3), 971-976.
  9. Sulloway, F. J., & Zweigenhaft, R. L. (2010). Birth order and risk taking in athletics: A meta-analysis and study of major league baseball. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(4), 402-416.
  10. Davis, N. W., & Meyer, B. B. (2008). When sibling becomes competitor: A qualitative investigation of same-sex sibling competition in elite sport. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20(2), 220-235.
  11. Eckstein, D. (2000). Empirical studies indicating significant birth-order-related personality differences. Journal of Individual Psychology, 56(4), 481.
  12. Stevenson, C. L. (1990). The early careers of international athletes. Sociology of Sport Journal, 7(3), 238-253.
  13. Sulloway, F. J. (1996). Born to rebel: Birth order, family dynamics, and creative lives. New York: Pantheon.

About Pathways to the Podium Research Team

The Pathways to the Podium Research Team consists of: Ms. Melissa Hopwood, PhD Candidate, Victoria University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; Dr. Joe Baker, School of Kinesiology and Health Science, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Dr. Clare MacMahon, School of Sport and Exercise Science, Victoria University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; Dr. Damian Farrow, Victoria University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, and the Australian Institute of Sport, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia.
This entry was posted in Development of Expertise, Pathways to the Podium and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Faster, higher, stronger… and younger? Birth order, sibling sport participation, and sport expertise development

  1. Jeff Cubos says:

    Thanks for this. Curious as to what role same-sex/opposite-sex plays in all of this. Thanks

    • Hi Jeff,
      Great question. At the moment we have only just skimmed the surface when it comes to same/opposite sex siblings, and we found that there were no differences between skill groups for the number of siblings who were the same or opposite-sex to the athlete (i.e. the elite athletes were no more or less likely to have same or opposite sex siblings than lesser skilled athletes). We haven’t yet looked to see whether same-sex siblings were more likely to have played the same sport as the athlete compared to opposite-sex siblings (for example), but this is certainly something to consider in the future. No twins were included in this sample, but I would also be very curious to look more closely at sport participation characteristics among twins.

      Over the coming weeks I will post more results relating to parental participation in sport and physical activity and the development of sport expertise. Stay tuned!

      Melissa
      Pathways to the Podium Research Team

  2. Margie Fahy says:

    Hi and thanks for the research summary. I would be interested to see these findings overlaid across socio-economic status of families and taking into account that this status can change over time permitting different levels of access and support to different siblings. In my own case being the last born of 8 children, I was given opportunities to participate and progress my sport that my older siblings did not have due to the socio-economic conditions for my family at the time. Also curious to see if there are differences depending on the numbers of siblings, so if we are comparing first sibling to second sibling or first sibling to fifth or sixth etc? Thanks

    • Hi Margie,

      Thanks for your comments, you have made some really good points. We did not consider changing socio-economic circumstances within families and how that may have influenced childrens’ participation in competitive sport, however we did collect highest level of education reached by each parent as a rough proxy for general socio-economic status. We found that parents of elite athletes had completed a higher level of education than parents of non-elite athletes, suggesting that SES may play a role in sport expertise development. We have discussed the possibility that families may be more financially stable by the time the 2nd or 3rd (or 8th!) child comes along, so we certainly agree with you on this and it would very interesting to look at this in more detail.

      In regards to your second question regarding birth order – at this stage we have simply classified the athletes as only children, first born of multiple children, or later born for the purpose of looking at the association between birth order and expertise, and we have only classified siblings as older and younger, but again it would certainly be interesting to look more closely at birth ranking and its associations with various characteristics of sport participation and attainment.

      This investigation was somewhat of a first pass just scraping the surface of potential relationships between familial participation in sport and physical activity and sport expertise. Now that we have some preliminary results, as you have rightly pointed out, there are a number of additional questions that we can begin to explore in more detail. Some more quantitative data would be helpful, but qualitative research actually interviewing families and discussing their involvement in sport and physical activity including facilitators, barriers, socio-economic status, motivations for participation and non-participation etc. would be fascinating!

      Thanks again for your great discussion,

      Melissa
      Pathways to the Podium Research Team

  3. Stuart says:

    The familial influence on sporting success amongst siblings brought up together, is undoubtedly a major contributing factor in the level of success they achieve. There is also a good statistical likelihood that siblings – even twins – might compete together in the top leagues (e.g. the Sedins and the Williams). But the question of genetics remains an intriguing one. Do you have any data on siblings who were not brought up together? It would be interesting to know if genetics leads them to become expert in any sport, even in the absence of a common upbringing which might influence them to choose the same sport.

    • Hi Stuart,

      Very interesting thoughts. Unfortunately, no, I do not have any data, nor have I seen any data, on siblings reared apart that both went on to become elite athletes. I think it would be quite difficult to find participants for such a study, but I certainly agree it would be fascinating!

      I do wonder about the role of genetics, and I would actually like to delve a bit deeper to see whether family involvement in the same sport (both among parents and siblings) is more common for some sports than others, and whether heritable traits such as height (for example) may contribute to any sport-based differences. For example, height is highly heritable and is a critical factor for basketball but not necessarily golf, so is family involvement in the same sport more common among basketball players who are ‘built for the sport’ than golf players?

      There are lots of interesting questions and directions to go from here. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, this study really just started to scrape the surface of this topic so now I need to get back to work and find out a bit more!

      Thanks for your comments Stuart,

      Melissa Hopwood
      Pathways to the Podium Research Team

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s