How family plays a crucial role in the making of elite athletes
New sports psychology book examines factors behind development of top-level athletes
Mark Williams is sitting in his house on the Wirral Peninsula, near Liverpool. Life is, in his words, monotonous, in that every day is the same. He’s used to travelling around the world, giving talks and attending conferences, while travelling back and forth between the United Kingdom and Utah, where he is a professor of health and kinesiology at the University of Utah.
Over Zoom, we’re discussing his book The Best: How Elite Athletes Are Made, which he co-wrote with sports writer Tim Wigmore. So, after writing plenty of academic papers and 17 books previous to The Best, why delve into “pop psychology”?
“Having read books on the popular science theme previously, going back to [Malcolm] Gladwell’s Outliers, Matthew Syed’s Bounce, David Epstein’s books The Sports Gene and Range. I enjoyed reading those books, but they motivated me to write a similar book. I enjoyed reading them, but they sometimes presented an overly simplistic account of the science. They take a very black and white approach to science.
“Then, they take an extreme view and then dramatise that to some degree to sell books. I think science isn’t black and white. It’s many shades of grey, and I was keen to present a balanced view of the science so that the readers could make up their mind in terms of what they thought on these different topics.”
The layout of the book is a lot more accessible than an academic paper, yet it still presents science, research and evidence in a way that would easily make a peer-reviewed journal.
“We’ve interviewed many scientists in the book, and they’ve all provided good input, but at the same time, Tim has made the content I think a lot more accessible by bringing in a lot of biographical information.
“We were fortunate to interview between maybe 50 and 100 top-level athletes and coaches – people like Marcus Rashford, Jamie Carragher, Dan Carter, Elena Delle Donne, Steph Curry, Ian Poulter. Essentially, the way we worked on it is that I wrote science notes, maybe 4,000 words of science notes per chapter. Then Tim would try and get interviews and biographical information to wrap around the science.”
So, how are elite athletes made? Well, one factor is the child’s environment, meaning family, introduction to the sport and engagement. Younger siblings tend to be better at sport: statistically, having an older sibling is one of the most important advantages that any aspiring athlete can have.
From a women in sports point of view, having older siblings is important. The book states that of the English women’s football squad who reached the semi-final of the 2019 World Cup, 52 per cent had an older brother, and two-thirds had an older sibling. Likewise, in England’s cricket squad, who lifted the Women’s World Cup at Lord’s in 2017, 14 of the 15 had an elder brother who played cricket.
“The argument is that those older siblings introduce the youngest sibling to sports at an earlier age,” explains Williams. “The younger siblings are carted around whilst the older sibling goes to practice and training. So, the youngest sibling is introduced to the culture of the sport at a very early age. I guess on street sports, and often younger siblings joined in with older siblings.
“There is a big stimulus in the learning process. As for parents, in the sense that parents often introduced children to the sport, they have to act as the taxi driver, carting children all over the country to different training locations.”
On the subject of parenting, things get dicey. The term “helicopter parenting” referenced in the book by child development researchers Foster Cline and Jim Fay as parents who are obsessively involved in their children’s lives, trying to solve all of their problems and protect them from danger. There is one standalone example against helicopter parenting: Judy Murray, tennis coach and mother to Andy and Jamie Murray.
“She was quite senior in coaching tennis in Scotland when her kids were growing up, and she was instrumental in guiding and shaping the journeys of both Jamie and Andy, but she wasn’t overbearing.
“I think she gave them the opportunity both to succeed and sometimes to fail. The process of failing is important because it allows you to reflect and consider how you might do things differently in future. That presents a real growth opportunity,” says Williams, who also highlighted the importance of street sport in developing adaptive learners. As the book explores, the number of hours accumulated in informal play is as good a predictor of what athletes will achieve than the number of hours of formal training.
While the book illustrates a structure for developing elite athletes, Williams is keen to point out there is no one-size-fits-all approach and specialisation and diversification are two hot topics.
“People talk about the importance of potential specialisation in the development of athletes. Specialisation is where you might participate in one sport, or certainly, no more than one or two sports from a very early age instead of participating in other sports. Diversification is where you participate in multiple sports during development. The suggestion of people like Dr Jean Côté, a well-known sports scientist from Canada, is that you probably shouldn’t be specialising in any one sport until maybe age 12 or 14 and then there are alternative pathways. That’s something I refer to as early engagement.”
In early engagement, one spends most of their time in one, possibly two, sports during development, but also participates in other sports at leisure. The data, according to Williams, focuses on practice hours and how it impacts you as an athlete.
“Typically, footballers in Europe are beginning to participate in the sport around five years of age, and then they are participating in maybe two or three other sports, also during development, but to a much lesser extent. Even at six, seven years of age, if they’re in the academy system, then they’re accumulating eight to 10 hours a week in practice.
“By age nine and in the Premier League academy system, they have probably accumulated around 3,000 hours in practice. By 15, 16 they’ve accumulated 5,000 hours in practice, and I guess by the time they’re close to the first team then they’ve probably have accumulated 10,000 hours in practice in football.”
What about the transfer of skills? Williams has a theory and research on that. “We’ve managed to get two groups of soccer players in the League of Ireland. One group had only played soccer throughout their development, and the other had played both Gaelic football and soccer, and they’d played Gaelic football to the highest possible level.
“We looked at the practice history profiles. We used questionnaires, semi-structured interviews to reflect on issues like the age of first engagement in the sports, how many hours per week did they spend in different sports, what type of practice, coach-led, non-coach led.
“We didn’t find any empirical evidence of transfer. What we found was that the players who played soccer and Gaelic football specialised in the two sports simultaneously. The players that played Gaelic and soccer accumulated 6,000 hours of practice in soccer and 3,000 hours in Gaelic football by age 20. Whereas the group that had specialised in soccer solely had accumulated 6,000 hours in soccer.”
Williams and Wigmore are keen on one thing: The Best isn’t a one size fits all, it’s a highly thought out, well-researched and accessible book that gives recommendations based on context and sport. Making an elite athlete isn’t easy, and while it is fascinating and insightful, it’s really what the policymakers, coaches, children and parents do that decides whether you are The Best.