Numlock Sunday: Tim Wigmore on sibling rivalries

By Walt Hickey

Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition. Each week, I'll sit down with an author or a writer behind one of the stories covered in a previous weekday edition for a casual conversation about what they wrote.

This week, I spoke to Tim Wigmore, who wrote The Best: How Elite Athletes Are Made, an excerpt of which was featured on the popular blog FiveThirtyEight. Here's what I wrote about it:

A study of 33 sports in Canada and Australia comparing elite athletes and near-elite athletes found that the great ones were more likely to be later-born children, the younger siblings who became top in their field. Elite athletes had 1.04 older siblings on average, while non-elite athletes had just 0.61, and as a non-athletic eldest sibling, it is incredibly difficult for me to not take this study personally. A 2010 study of 700 pairs of MLB brothers found the younger brothers were 2.5 times as likely as their elders to be better batters, and ended up playing an average 2.5 years longer. Why do the spares outdo the heirs? Part of it may be a better likelihood of seeing a field to begin with: younger siblings are 40 percent more likely to be allowed to play dangerous contact sports than older siblings, thus having more opportunities to reveal their talents.

I loved this because it’s such a cool finding and, having subsquently grabbed a copy of the book, just the very tip of the iceberg. The book’s a very neat read, full of cool insights about how people who are really good at their jobs got that way.

We spoke about why younger siblings are often better at sports than elder siblings, how birth order impacts athletic opportunities, and how where people are from can impact athletic development in surprising ways.

The book is available right now and can be found wherever books are sold.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Tim, you are the author of a new book, The Best: How Elite Athletes Are Made. You had a story published at FiveThirtyEight a few days back all about how younger siblings are superior to elder siblings when it comes to their capacity to get good at sports. Do you want to go into why this is and how you determined this effect?

There's a lot of research on this. There was a Canadian/Australian study who studied three different sports. And they basically had elite athletes, those who had gone on and played internationally or reached very high level, and then they had people who were kind of good at youth sports, then faded out a bit and didn't go on to be as successful. So, out of these two groups, they looked at the number of siblings they had and the groups on average had exactly the same number of siblings, no difference at all. But then they looked at whether they were younger or older and that's when you see a big difference. The group of elite athletes had an average at 1.04 older siblings. The near-elite group had an average of 0.6 older siblings, but that's a big difference. Half an older sibling on average.

And there's the other study actually looking at when two siblings, who both go on to become professionals, and which one's likely to be better. And they've shown it in Major League Baseball, in about two out of three cases, the younger sibling goes on to have a more successful career. So, this sibling factor has been shown to be a major effect, both in terms of determining who goes on to become professional and when two siblings become professional, which one's likely to be better. That's the evidence for it and the question is why that's the case. And so, the simple and biggest forces driving that is if you're a younger sibling, you have to play up all the time and playing up, you're playing with someone older.

And a great example of that that is the Williams sisters, they were a great example of this when they were kids. Serena was 15 months younger than Venus. Serena was actually the youngest in the family. And 15 months doesn't sound like a lot, but yet if you look at the pictures and Serena is three or four inches shorter than Venus. And what does that mean? Well, it means a whole journey of the kid, she always got to compete and try and make up for that gap. She was not as tall, she's probably not as strong, not as fast, so she had to make up for it in other ways.

And that's one of the key driver of this sibling effect is because little siblings have physical disadvantages that they have to find ways of making up that gap. And that comes through skills, it comes through tactics, and it also comes with the mental side of the game and that tenacity and toughing games out. And then essentially what happens is when the two siblings both get physically mature, suddenly there's no physical difference between them, really. But the little sibling, because they've had this handicap all along, they suddenly have the advantage in skills, tactics, and the psychological side of the game, which means they tend to go on and be superior athletes.

There's very interesting research on skill acquisition, i.e., how athletes develop skills. Basically, it shows that you tend to develop skills at a faster rate if you're failing more and if you're being challenged more. Whether or not someone has a younger sibling, they're all young athletes, they develop more if they fail a certain amount, if they're really, really pushed. And ultimately if you're a younger sibling, you're more likely to be pushed than if you're an older sibling.

And the final premise that we should talk about is parents. They will not admit it, but parents do treat their younger siblings differently from their older siblings. They'll never admit this, but the research shows that younger siblings tend to be allowed to do more informal play at a younger age. Actually, we find that informal play is generally a bigger predictor of who goes on to be an elite athlete than number of hours in the academy or formal training sessions. Informal play, it's very good for creativity and helping athletes problem solve and develop their own skills. Because they're treated differently by their parents, younger siblings tend to be able to do more informal play at a younger age, which means they get more practice. And even just from a fitness point of view, if you have a four-year-old playing with a six-year-old, that's better for the four-year-old's fitness than the six-year-old's. That ultimately gives them that advantage when they reach the stage where they play as adults, all of which contributes to younger siblings becoming on average significantly better than older siblings at sports.

In the book you talk about how things like birth time can have an effect on people, what time of year folks are born, whether it's earlier or later. Do you want to maybe go into some of that?

There's another really interesting finding, which is the importance of where you grow up. They've shown in the US, a kid born in a town between 50,000 and 100,000 has 15 times more chance of becoming a professional athlete than children of other areas. Like 15 times, that's a massive, massive advantage. And obviously this begs the question of what's going on here. Essentially we find that those sized towns are basically a sweet spot. They have the best of rural and urban living, which means they have space and a culture of informal play, but also enough good competition, enough good coaching to accelerate skill development.

And in communities of that size as well, it means it's not so big that kids have to spend a large amount of their time traveling to sport rather than playing sport, so it's a lot easier. And you also get more of a culture of informal play in those areas. Another big thing is the dropout rate in new sports, they are much higher in bigger cities than in these medium-sized towns that we talk about. That suggests that basically some talent is getting lost from big cities, kids getting discouraged, maybe coaches are kind of ignoring or forgetting about them. And kids in medium-sized towns are not being lost in the same way, so actually they're getting more chances to develop. They're getting more chance to kind of find their right sport. And also, if they're late developers, they're getting more opportunities as well.

You see the Premier League academies in soccer about 45 percent of kids are born in the first three months of the selection year, which actually means if you're born in England in September, you have four times more chance of getting into Premier League Academy than a kid born in July. That shows that coaches are kind of going for the easy option. They're picking kids who are more physically developed, more physically mature, as opposed to those, they might be more skillful, but they're a bit smaller, late to develop. And that is a real problem. Because often what happens, a kid might be a bit an older sibling actually and a kid might be very big for their age group, playing with their friends and dominating, but because of their physical characteristics, they're not developing their other skills, the mental side of the game, their tactics and so on, in the same way. A really good option, which should be done more in youth sports, is playing up. And that is getting kids out of their comfort zone, playing a different age group.

So, in our book, we interviewed Elena Delle Donne, who is six foot five and she was always tall for her age. She explains that when she was 11, she was playing with kids who were 16, so five years older. That’s a huge challenge to bridge that gap, and essentially that means that rather than just being known as the bully on the court, she became like a little sibling in those games. I think the kind of questions for those involved in talent, how can you create little siblings? How can you create them in different ways? And so getting kids to play up, not just in their age group, is a really good way of doing that and could be really beneficial for the kids in the long term. I think one of the key issues is if youth sports are taken too seriously and if winning the next game is all that matters at the under 11, under 12 level, would that then be detrimental to the long-term development of the kid.

So much of what you cover is how you position people to kind of succeed in the longterm. Again, the following chapter, after you get into some of that kind of stuff, was about this fascinating system in France —

The Banlieue in France, which is in greater Paris.

Yes! I would love to hear more about that.

Part of the research for the book, I visited the banlieue in Paris, which is basically their suburbs in greater Paris. And this area is probably the soccer hotbed in the whole world. Eight of France's squad in the last World Cup came from greater Paris. And actually 60 players in the last five World Cups came from Paris, 10 more than anywhere else.

And what I saw in the banlieue of Paris, there's an amazing vibrant culture of street football that you see a lot. Huge amount of kids, they're playing in local parks, they're even playing between park benches and so on. And this is generally unstructured, informal play and it's hyper-competitive. And what it says is it's brilliant for kids to develop creativity, free-thinking, ability to kind of recognize and diagnose problems for themselves.

There's also a magic in the math. And by that I mean, lots of street football, it's three or four players a side, which means you're going to touch the ball a lot more than 11 a side football on a massive pitch. So, that means you're getting many more chances to learn and to fail. And also you'll be playing with all the kids, all the time. There's often no referee in some of these informal games, so it toughens players up. And so it molds players who are very creative. They're very street smart as well.

And again, I think lots of people forget the importance of informal play, which is so important for kids. So that was a really interesting analysis my co-author Mark did, of players released from Premier League soccer academies age 16. And it was comparing the players who were released, the players who were offered three year scholarships, age 16. And it found amongst the two groups, they looked at how many hours had they done in the academy. And we would probably naturally see that the kids who got the contract, had showed up on time, trained harder, but that was not true at all. So, the two groups had done exactly the same amount of training in the academy on average. There is no difference at all there in their development history.

But then the authors looked at the number of hours of informal play, street football, and this is where they found the difference. The players offered scholarship had done an average of nine hours a week of informal play with their friends and family and the players who were released had only done five hours of informal play. So informal play, it often gives players this trait, they basically think for themselves to react and adapt under pressure without a coach telling them what to do. That often sets the great players apart.

It's all well and good, a coach telling players what to do, but a coach can't always tell you everything. And it's that ability to diagnose problems, react in the heat of the moment, which really you get from informal play. It can be so important. And actually what we're seeing now in Premier League soccer academies, we are seeing them increasingly, they're getting the young kids in, and then they are setting them loose and not saying anything. They're almost trying to artificially recreate the benefits of informal play because maybe parents are less willing for their kids to play informally or whatever. It's not just true in soccer. The NBA, they did a study a couple of years ago, looking at the factors that went into making a great basketball player, and they found that players who did more informal play and more games of pickup, they tended to be smarter learners. They were better at adapting to input data and seeing problems. The reason is basically because those informal games that expose players to more variables, that can be just playing different positions, different rules, playing on different surfaces, different number of players, different court sizes and that accelerates skill development.

The book is a really fascinating look about what goes into making elite athletes, but also very much goes into just what makes people who are very good at what they do. Do you want to kind of finish up with where people can find you and your work?

The book is sort of a Freakonomics of sport. It's a 360 degree look at what goes into making an elite athlete, so that's everything from the environmental factors that we discussed here. The skills involved, how do you hit a baseball or a tennis ball in 0.25 seconds, how can a footballer or a NFL player see the patterns, why do athletes choke? The art of coaching! It's a little bit of all these factors and how they go into shaping an athlete. There's loads of interviews with elite athletes and coaches, including with Pete Sampras, Steph Curry, Elena Delle Donne, Steve Kerr. A huge number of athletes gave their insight and the book is out now in the US. The easiest place to buy it is on Amazon online. It's a perfect Christmas present, we hope.

The book is available right now and can be found wherever books are sold.

If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.

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