If on a transfer window deadline day, you read the highlights saying that professional footballers Pogba, Aubameyang, Drogba and Kompany signed for Crawley Town that might have raised a few eyebrows. If you continued reading and realised that it was Mathias Pogba, Willy Aubameyang, Joel Drogba and Francois Kompany then perhaps less so (can you name that one that has actually played for Crawley Town?).
Double (triple or quadruple!) trouble
In a previous blog I discussed research regarding parental involvement in youth development LINK Another environmental influence in talent development is the presence of siblings. Every sport has tales of famous siblings whether it’s Klitschko, Williams, Brownlee, Manning, Murray, Charlton,
Jedward. The sibling relationship is one of the most pervasive and longest lasting across one’s life span7 so it’s not surprising that it plays a prominent role in an individual’s development. The sibling relationship can be seen as “a natural laboratory for young children to learn about their world”14 Having more siblings means you’re more likely to get involved in sports in the first place and spend longer engaged in a particular sport or physical activity2. Research from the ‘United States Soccer Federation’ on its Women’s national teams — from ages 13 to 23, showed that 95% of players have a sibling, the 5% that don’t have a sibling is well below the national average (cited as being 20-25%), with 20% of those being the oldest child and 75% having an older sibling15. Elite athletes were more likely to be later-born children, non-elite were more likely to be first born.27 In a study of Swiss national football team players, the proportion of players with at least one football-playing brother is more than 70% for players with an international level, while the players with a regional level are almost 36%.15
As part of my PhD I tracked and interviewed 5 members of the Rep. Ireland u15 international squad through key developmental stages for 4 years. Their insights are displayed along with those from academia and sport literature.
In American sport, the family of 5 Gronkowski brothers all play professional sports. Four play in the NFL, while the 5th played pro baseball. Rob (4th in line) is a 2-time Super Bowl winner with New England Patriots. If you play football in high school, you have a .09% of being drafted by an NFL team so the odds of 4 getting drafted are minute! Their father Gordi Sr. reflects on their development by saying: In eighth grade, I said to each of them in turn, “If you want to keep pursuing sports, you need to start training.” Gordi didn’t want to at first. But then he saw his younger brother Danny down in the basement getting bigger, stronger, and faster than him—then he wanted to train! It was like a virus after that—Chris hopped in, then Rob. After that, it was no problem pushing them to work harder anymore. They did it themselves. That was a great feeling, but it got very competitive in the house. I just created the environment, sat back, and watched it happen.24
Gordi jr reflects on that time: “with the help of my younger brothers, especially Danny being two years younger than me and being a little bit taller, and he started working out before me. He was playing on all my varsity teams and all my all-star teams, so it was pretty incredible to see my younger brother playing all those sports with me. So he really pushed me to become a better person and to get into the weight room, get stronger, get quicker, and when I saw that he wanted to do something and go play Division I football, you know, it kind of pushed me to become better. So without my four younger brothers, we were so competitive, I might not even have left Buffalo and picked a sport. They really helped me to get where I am today”. 19
After the impressive run by a Norwegian teenager in the 1500m at the 2018 European Championships, even those not familiar with athletics may have heard about ‘Team Ingebrigtsen’. The 17-year-old Jakob became the 3rd sibling from the family to win gold in the event. After his win, Jakob said “I’m really happy to bring home what’s ours!” (brother Filip was the defending champion). Two other brothers from the family left the sport, Martin suggesting that he didn’t have the winning instinct that his brothers do, so this would align with bioecological approach to development that it’s not purely about the environment around you but also how your personal characteristics interact with the situation.4 The boys have been trained by their father since they were young. Challenge and the competitive environment are central to the lives of the brothers. Jakob muses about how “Everything is a challenge, whether on the track or even if it’s just who’s first to the table” or who is best at making bread rolls as can be seen below! 23
The 3 Ó Sé brothers from Kerry (Marc, Tomás, and Darragh) are the only set of 3 brothers to be named on the same All-stars GAA team. The 3 brothers all have a place within the top 6 appearance list of all time in Gaelic football, Darragh initially setting the record which was overtaken by his 2 younger brothers. Skills cultivated in the back garden with their older brother Fergal, who left for college leaving the boys to change the rules and focus on playing one v one and one in goal. Their father Micheál played football but it was mostly their uncle Páidí who spread the passion through the family and lived with them for some time. Daragh played under Páidí for West Kerry, Kerry u21s and senior, “I enjoy his mindset, his competitiveness. He’s the ultimate competitor. If you are injured Páidí has no interest in you. Ass off the bench then you’re buddies again.”16
An interesting similarity between these family dynamics is an engaged, demanding male figure who actively functions as a coach within either their developing years or even to this day in the case of the Ingebrigtens. This central figure plays a key role is generating the competitiveness culture demonstrated in these examples.
What are the potential benefits?
The benefits of sibling relationships on development include role-modelling, skill development, communication, emotional interpersonal skills, rivalry and resilience.22 8
Skill development and challenge
Back-yard games against potentially physically, technically and emotionally more mature competitors is likely to insert greater levels of periodised challenge into an athletes development, which is part of the essential ‘rocky road’6 non-linear developmental journey and prepares athletes for future exposure to such environments within an organised sport setting.
Emotional and instructional support
Siblings can be a source of emotional support, by providing encouragement, defending them in times of need, displaying pride. 3 11 Reflecting on injuries suffered by the brothers at different stages of their careers, Gordy jr said “It’s a tough process but we are here to support each other”. An Ireland youth international assessed his relationship with his 2 year older fellow football playing sibling, “We both have different things to say or constructive criticism on each other’s performances”. Dan Gronkowski outlined that “the best thing is just the support we give each other. If I had a brother that didn’t play sports, who wasn’t in the NFL, he’d have no idea what I was talking about, but I’m able to open up with them and talk about the serious things and get through them together. So I think that’s definitely a positive”.
Siblings are often important sources of instructional support, giving feedback on performance (even when not requested!). Ireland u15 “After every match, even if I had the best game I ever played, he’d still say one thing I did wrong. He’d help me. Sometimes, I wouldn’t really want to listen to him when he’s telling me what I did wrong, but there’s constructive criticism, but sometimes I didn’t think of it that way because I was so annoyed about how I played. But if I played good, he’d still tell me what I did wrong and what I need to work on, and he’d work on them with me as well”. Older siblings are also often seen as role-models for work ethic. 8
Siblings involved in sport often organise whole-family activities, a kick-around outside, which can lead to enhanced bonding within the group. Gordi JR outlined “it’s incredible. It would be awkward actually if one of them didn’t play any sports, ’cause that’s all we pretty much did our whole life, you know, we did it together”. Sport is often a shared source of conversation, Ireland u15 “He helps me a lot, if I don’t understand something he will explain it to me and we chat a lot about football”. One u15 international even changed clubs to join the same school-boy club as his older brother has attended, “ah he said it was the best place to learn, I remembered seeing him there and I wanted to follow in his footsteps”.
Rivalry as motivation
Motivated by a social comparison to one’s sibling can prompt an increase in work load and dedication to the sport.11 With younger athletes motivated to beat older siblings to move out of the shadow and create their own sporting identity, and older siblings motivated to retain their place or superior athletic status.
What’s in a name?
The Quaid family from Limerick occupy a fascinating familial story within GAA circles with their unbroken service to Limerick hurling stretching over 70 years, brothers, nephews, sons, cousins all occupying the goal-keeper jersey. Having a family member; father, brother, cousin, trail a path can often open doors, as highlighted by this quote from Joe Quaid “I have twin boys now who are 12, Liam and Killian. About four years ago the U-10 manager rang me to know would one of my boys play in goals for an U-10 tournament even though he was U-8. I said, ‘He will, yeah. But have you ever seen him playing?’ He said, ‘No’. I said, ‘If his name was Murphy, would you have rang?’ He went, ‘Probably not!'”25
Any potential negatives?
Conflict and rivalry between siblings were more frequently reported between narrow spaced siblings as they compete for parental attention 13 this moderates as they grow older and begin to spend more time with peers.5 This rivalry can cause the younger sibling to forgo the sport entirely and choose to carve out an unoccupied niche.20 Younger siblings have been shown to engage in more risky or extreme sports and activities to attempt their ‘own path’ approach to physical activity. 21
Sibling competition may be the result of later-born siblings feeling inferior to their more talented older siblings resulting in rivalry and increased competition for resources, which could include parental attention. 9 Perhaps Jakob Ingebrigtsen advanced from having a larger age gap than his two close older brothers (Henrik 1991, Filip, 1993, Jakob, 2000) as he benefited from joining in with their training but through his early development years yet he didn’t face the same direct intense sibling rivalries that Filip has experienced with Henrik.
Reflecting on the journey of his youngest son, Gordi Sr acknowledged “I think there’s a little pressure on him to perform, and he is doing a great job. And he’s only a redshirt freshman and he is very talented too. So – and I think he is feeling the effects a little bit of his brothers on him, ’cause all the eyes are on him now.”
Distribution of resources
Often there are unequal distribution of resources within a family if one child is making a serious commitment to a sport and this can mean special privileges being bestowed on that child which can result in tension, bitterness and jealously.
Interestingly all of the sample within my longitudinal study, were the youngest (or only) boy in the family, with the boys who had a larger gap between them and an older brother reflecting that this gave him a better chance to secure family resources (time, money) than if he had competing siblings needing to be dropped to training at the same time!
Mind the gap:
Research has begun to investigate whether the age gap influences the strength of the relationship dynamic. For example, having an older sibling more than 4 years older may mean less interaction as they start school and have less daily interactions, versus siblings that are closer in age. The average age difference between US National team players and next oldest sibling was 3 years. 26
Gaps of more than 3 years were associated with greater feelings of affection within the sibling bond (Furman). The relationship is a dynamic one, changing due to environmental characteristics (e.g. reports of siblings being closer in the summer due to having more time to play together) and changing due to sport progression (or lack of). 22
Brother-brother siblings spend more time engaged in sporting activities than other relationships (brother-sister, sister-sister), with proposed differences being that girls close relationships tend to focus on intimacy, reached through conversation rather than based on shared physical activities. 18
Boys who received support from a brother reported higher levels of sport engagement yet girls who received support from either a sister or brother reported increased activity.12 The USSF female player study showed that the gender of the next oldest was insignificant, age-gap and mutual interest in the sport were more important. Girls with older brothers are more likely to play than those with older sisters.1 So if older sisters are less likely to inspire younger brothers to play is that a gender stereotype issue?
Athletes can of course reach the highest levels without the potential equal part inspiration and annoyance of siblings; this article purely explored the significant dynamic of that relationship. With a blend of power dynamics, rivalry, conflict, closeness and warmth, anyone with a sibling will explain that it is certainly a complex, paradoxical relationship! A relationship which often makes a sibling occupy a competitor role, a teammate role and also a coaching role with his/her sibling. 11
- Parents should be reflective of the impact of specialised attention on a high performing child within the overall family dynamic and consider their role within such a family environment. Parents cultivate the environment in which the siblings interact so ensuring it is an equally healthy one for all children is key.
- It is important for coaches to understand sibling contributions to athletic development. For example, older siblings act as important sources of instructional support to later-born athletes, coaches should try to engage with key personnel within an athlete’s development circle to reinforce particular messages and promote message clarity.
- Athletes benefited from being able to develop and test their skills with a range of players in a non-competitive (in relation to league tables, fear of getting dropped etc it’s a different type of competitiveness to a mass sibling-cousin-neighbour game brawl!). Learning can be for coaches to provide this challenge in a similar environment, for example allow playing-up, encourage a mix of competitors to play in various environments.
- Coaches should be cognisant of birth-order of athletes. Is a lower born sibling considering dropping out of a sport to follow his/her own path and find their ‘niche’ within the family? Are older siblings dealing appropriately with the pressure of a younger sibling progressing quicker within their shared sport perhaps?
P.s. it was Mathias Pogba that played for Crawley town.
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- Cunningham, K. (2016). Marc Ó Sé has called it a day with Kerry – a tribute. https://www.buzz.ie/sport/marc-o-se-has-called-it-a-day-with-kerry-a-tribute-187067
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