This Is What Top Athletes Often Have In Common

Em Unravelling

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Andy Murray, the Scottish tennis champion, has won the Grand Slam singles title three times. Serena Williams, also a famous tennis pro, has won twenty-three Grand Slams and is widely believed to be the best female tennis player in the world.

Apart from both being phenomenal world leaders in the field of tennis, Murray and Williams share something else in common: they both have older siblings who are also athletes playing competitively in the same field. Not only that, but both of them have, now, comprehensively beaten their siblings in their chosen arena. They’ve overtaken them, despite being younger.

This is called the “little sibling effect”, and it really exists. It plays out again and again, and sports scientists are intrigued by it. Recently, the results of a large study across 33 sports (in Australia and Canada) stated very plainly that “Elite athletes were more likely to be later-born children”. A book by Mark Williams and Tim Wigmore was published recently and goes even deeper into the phenomenon.

So what’s the deal? Anecdotally, older children are often seen as having an advantage in most areas of life. They get to be the sole focus of their parents’ attention for however many years it is before they acquire a sibling. They are often more free to pick the sport that they want to be devoted to — younger brothers and sisters tend to be dragged along to their older siblings’ activities by default. By these metrics, it would make sense for the older child to perform better, because they tend to get more attention and be naturally more inclined to strive for success.

And yet they don’t perform better - not at sports. The studies prove that they don’t. Male or female, if two siblings both enter a sporting field competitively, the younger one will almost always do better and go further. What gives?

Well, there’s the element of natural competition, and of badly wanting to be better than one’s older sibling. Michael Jordan has admitted that he never could beat his brother Larry at basketball, and he always believed Larry was the better player. Andy Murray’s mother Judy has also spoken publicly about the fact that “all [Andy] ever wanted to do was beat Jamie” — Jamie being his older brother, who was also a professional tennis player. Judy Murray said that having someone stronger to play against from an early age helped Andy's game.

There’s also the fact that by the time sibling number 2 throws their hat into the ring of a particular sport, that child’s parents are likely to be very familiar with the routine of training, the kit needed, and the route to entering competitions and challenges. It’s a familiar part of the household and, having grown up around it, the younger sibling is likely to be very comfortable with the “admin” side of whatever sport they may be playing. For example, they may know the best local clubs and the other sportspeople to beat at local competitions, so they can focus on that from the outset rather than feeling their way.

A younger sibling choosing to take up a sport that their older brother or sister already practices at a serious level has a ready-made coach, too. If the oldest sibling takes up, say, football, then unless their parents are particularly sporty they are likely to be able to play against other people only at scheduled training sessions and matches. A younger sibling entering the sport will be able to play against their older sibling from the off, and this training is likely to be more useful to them as a beginner than it is to the older sibling who already has more experience.

And they will have endless hand-me-downs of kit, too. A lot of sports require expensive kit that costs a lot for an initial outlay. If an older sibling is handing down the best versions of their kit, this is a natural gain for the younger child.

And finally, being a younger child famously means that their parents are likely to be less strict and controlling, having learned from parenting the older child and being, therefore, a bit more confident. Parents of a younger sibling are more likely to allow that child to have the freedom to play sport more often, particularly when they are already experienced in the sport from their older child’s experience.

For example, a parent who might have once feared that games of rugby would be too dangerous for their precious first-born child may be quite laissez-faire when the younger child wants to join their older sibling on the pitch. This sort of bravery is crucial when getting ahead in sport. Being a risk-taker and having a daring nature is more useful on the sports field than almost anywhere else, and younger siblings will usually have been given more freedom to be naturally daring.

So there you have it. If you’re the eldest of your tribe of siblings, you’ve got more of an uphill battle if you’re seeking to reach the top of your chosen sport. Sports science says so. In the absence of being able to find yourself a ready-made older sibling who’s already playing competitively at the sport you love, you might have to work a little bit harder to hit the top of the elite tree. Or you might just have to watch your younger sibling overtake you, and be proud of them.

Alternatively, you could remember Alistair and Jonny Brownlee, the triathlete brothers who defy the stats. Alistair, the eldest, has beaten his younger brother again and again; he seems to have the competitive edge that science suggests his younger brother should, by rights, have acquired by watching him.

So whatever the studies might say: if you want it enough, you can make it. Even if you are the disadvantaged older sibling.

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A lover of horizons, hills, and words. Likes to write about uncomfortable things because too many people steer round those parts of life.

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