What Influences Elite Athleticism?

The path to sporting greatness is often paved with chance.

Posted Jan 12, 2021

Photo by Dominika Roseclay from Pexels
Source: Photo by Dominika Roseclay from Pexels

The role of luck or serendipity is crucial in becoming an elite athlete. Elite athletes benefit from lucky "roles of the dice" on the path to sporting greatness.

Let's consider the role of family, when and where athletes are born, and the importance of street sport in becoming an elite athlete. Here are six factors that have an impact on the chances of any child becoming an elite athlete.

1. A sporting family 

Parents, and/or significant others such as guardians and coaches, play a key role in introducing and socializing children into sport. They typically encourage children to participate and contribute significant time and money in promoting continued engagement. Moreover, they influence the development of the children’s values related to sport participation, their expectations for success, and the behaviors or activities in which they engage. Parents can be positive role models, providing reinforcement and feedback following successful mastery attempts that enhance the child’s perceptions of competence and the motivation to continue engagement in the sport.

Yet, as dramatically as positive parenting can enhance children’s attitudes toward participation, as well as contributing to the development of perceived competence, self-confidence, and motivation to play and continue in the sport, negative parenting can have the reverse effects. If excessive parental pressure is present, expectations can be associated with negative outcomes, including higher anxiety, lower self-esteem, and reduced self-confidence, leading to burnout and dropout.

2. Parents who find the right balance between being hands-off and hands-on 

Scientists suggest that parents need to strike the right balance in their approach between being authoritarian and permissive. While an authoritarian approach can present clear boundaries and a sense of security, a more permissive approach can provide opportunities for creativity and adaptability.

In hyper-parenting styles, commonly characterized as helicopter parenting, parents try to solve all of their children’s problems and protect them from dangers. While overly "hands-on" parenting styles may have short-term benefits, more "hands-off" approaches are associated with higher engagement in sport and increased physical activity among children. Finding the right balance in parenting styles is pivotal for each child.

3. Siblings, particularly older ones

Siblings, particularly older ones, play an equally important role in providing companionship and emotional, instructional support, as well as acting as facilitators that enable greater opportunities for adaptive learning and developing coping and resilience skills.

Younger siblings are far more likely to become an elite athlete than older ones, albeit having any sibling at all is a major advantage. Younger siblings have access to other people to play with, are introduced into the sport at an earlier age, have the opportunity to imitate and copy older siblings, and are more likely to become motivated to outperform their older siblings. Younger siblings have to strive more to compete against their older siblings, presenting more opportunities to make the adaptations needed to progress in the sport.

4. Play a lot of street-sport (rather than Fortnite)

The increasing tendency for hyper-parenting has led to diminished opportunities for children to participate in free-play activities such as street sport. Scientists report that engagement in street sport correlates positively with the development of technical and tactical skills, as well as the ultimate level of attainment in the sport. Moreover, the decline in free-play spaces, increased concerns over child safety, and access to alternative forms of entertainment such as video games have had a negative impact on participation in street sport.

5. Being born in the first three months of the selection year for the sport of choice

In most sports, the chances of a child being selected into an elite training program are significantly higher if born in the first quarter of the selection year for the sport. This phenomenon, referred to as the "relative age effect" or RAE, has been consistently reported across several decades in a myriad of sports such as soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, tennis, and swimming. The RAE reflects the tendency of scouts and coaches to select boys and girls that are the biggest and most developed for their age grouping, shunning those born later in the selection year. In other sports, notably, those where being small is an advantage, such as gymnastics, figure skating, and trampolining, there is a proclivity to select those born in the last quarter.

However, as a comfort for those born later in the selection year in sports where being bigger presents an advantage, the "underdog effect" suggests that the chances of being a super-elite athlete are higher if born later in the year; provided of course you get selected in the first instance. The argument is that those who do not have the benefits of size and strength early in development are likely to develop skills that are more likely to be crucial once the physical disadvantages disappear post-puberty, such as technical, tactical, and psychological skills.

6. Being raised in a mid-size town 

In North America, the optimum size community for the development of American footballers, basketballers, baseballers, and golfers is more than 50,000 but less than 99,999, with significant underrepresentation in cities > 500,000. While only 1.1 percent of the US population live in towns with 50,000-99,000 residents, 10-17 percent of professional American football, baseball, basketball, and golfers come from such towns. Similarly, in Canada, 13 percent of the population resides in cities with a population between 100,000 and 499,999, yet 33 percent of NHL players come from these cities.

A key point is that it is not the population size that is crucial per se, but rather the density of the sporting community and the proximity to facilities and coaches. In rural communities, there may be too small a talent pool for participation and competition, as well as inadequate facilities and access to high-level coaching. In contrast, in big cities, there may be a large volume of individuals competing for limited spots on a team or limited access to training facilities and coaches. 

In sum, it helps a lot to be born "lucky" in sport. While being born lucky is not in and of itself a recipe for sporting success, it is inevitable that where you are born, when you are born, and what type of family you are born into impacts significantly on the chances of success long before a child has thrown or kicked a ball.

In my next blog post, I'll highlight that while being born lucky helps in becoming "The Best," it is not on its own sufficient to reach sporting greatness. The human system demonstrates considerable plasticity leading to crucial adaptations that occur through prolonged engagement in sport. These adaptations are considered in detail in the next post.