By Jessica Pinchbeck
Within sport there are many examples of successful sporting siblings such as the Williams sisters in tennis, the Brownlee brothers in Triathlon, and the Schumacher brothers in Formula One. Inevitably the role of the family plays a part in this success such as the emotional, financial and logistical support offered, as discussed in the article ‘Being an Olympic Parent: the family behind the athlete’. This article takes a slightly different approach and focuses on the siblings in the family unit, specifically the birth order of siblings and what effect this may have on an athlete’s sporting success.
A Family Affair
On day one of competition in Sochi a story of sibling success emerged. Three Canadian sisters competed in the ladies Moguls with two gaining podium places. Justine, Chloe and Maxine Dufour-Lapointe all competed, however the eldest sister Maxine failed to reach the final phase. Interestingly it was the youngest sibling Justine who gained the gold medal with middle sibling Chloe taking silver. However this sibling success is not a first and was the fourth time that two sisters have taken gold and silver in an Olympics. In the 1964 Games French sisters Christine and Marielle Goitschel won gold and silver in the slalom and giant slalom and in 1992 Austrian sisters Doris and Angelika Neuner took the first two podium places in the luge.
Day three in Sochi saw Dutch twins Michael and Ronald Mulder taking gold and bronze in the 500m speed skating, making them the second set of twins to take medals in the same event in the history of the Winter Olympics. American skiers Phil and Steve Mahre were the first twins to achieve this in 1984 winning gold and silver in the men’s slalom. In Turin 2006 brothers Philipp and Simon Schoch of Switzerland owned the top podium spots in snowboarding with younger brother Phillip having gained gold four years earlier in 2002. Both brothers are set to compete in Sochi. Over both the Summer and Winter Games there have been eight gold-silver brother finishes; so will Sochi see any more family photos on the podium?
New Zealand brothers Jossi, Byron and Beau James Wells are all competing in Sochi. Jossi will compete in the ski halfpipe and slopestyle along with his youngest brother Beau James. Middle brother Byron will compete in ski halfpipe. The family picture is completed by their father Bruce who is also their coach. At present Jossi, the eldest sibling, is the most successful although with Byron only 21 and James even younger at 18 this has time to change. The Switzerland team also have their own sibling story with sisters Aita, Elisa and Selina Gasparin all aiming for success in biathlon events. Within Team GB brother and sister, Posy and Andrew Musgrave, are both competing in cross country ski events in Sochi. GB cross country skier Andrew Young also makes up a sibling duo with older sister Sarah, although Sarah failed to qualify for these games. Andrew Young describes how being a younger sibling helped both his and Andrew Musgrave’s development:
“My sister is three years older than me, and [Musgrave’s] sister is a few years older than him, so it was always a competition to beat the girls …They were older and they were just as good as we were, when we were 11 and 12.”
Does birth order matter?
Jenny Jones, GB bronze medal winner in Sochi is the youngest of three children, with two older brothers, and interestingly it was the youngest Dufour-Lapointe sister who took the gold medal. Musgrave and Young are also developing more impressive international careers than their elder sisters. These examples support research evidence that elite athletes are more likely to be later born children with an association between birth order and skill level (Pathways to the Podium, 2012). So why is this the case?
One explanation is that younger siblings often report having to compete for their parents’ attention. Evidence suggests that later born children are more competitive (or ego-orientated) than their elder siblings, as demonstrated by Andrew Young trying to beat his older sister. This is thought to stem from parental tendencies to compare younger siblings to their older counterparts resulting in first born children being motivated to learn with younger siblings motivated to win.
Role modelling provides another explanation with younger siblings taking part in sport to be like their older brother or sister. Research also showed siblings were more likely to participate and compete in sport if their siblings, particularly elder siblings, did so too. For example, Molly Summerhayes, sister of Team GB’s Katie Summerhayes, is certainly an emerging GB ski slopestyle talent and her introduction to the sport came when she joined a Sheffield ski club with her older sister.
Personality characteristics may also play a part with first born athletes reporting significantly higher cognitive and somatic anxiety compared to later born athletes (Flowers and Brown, 2002). Athletes with higher anxiety levels are often reported as being less able to cope with the demanding pressures of elite sports performance. It will certainly be interesting to watch Molly’s development and whether this supersedes that of her elder sibling.
The question of birth order certainly raises some interesting discussion although evidence is far from conclusive. However the stories of sibling success in sport suggests that siblings do have a part to play in athletic development and it will be interesting to see what further sibling stories emerge from Sochi.
BBC (2014) ‘Sochi 2014: Michael Mulder wins 500m speed skating gold’ [online] Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/winter-olympics/26056740
Carette, B. Anseel, F. and Van Yperen, N.W. (2011) ‘Born to learn or born to win? Birth order effects on achievement goals’, Journal of Research in Personality, vol. 45, pp. 500–503.
Krombholz, H. (2006) Physical Performance In Relation To Age, Sex, Birth Order, Social Class, And Sports Activities Of Preschool Children. Perceptual and Motor Skills: Volume 102, Issue , pp. 477-484.
Little, C. (2013) ‘For Andrew Young and British Team, Preparing for a Once-In-Four-Years Opportunity to Reach Their Public’ [online] Available from: http://fasterskier.com/article/for-andrew-young-and-british-team-preparing-for-a-once-in-four-years-opportunity-to-reach-their-public/
Pathways to the Podium (2012) ‘Faster, higher, stronger… and younger? Birth order, sibling sport participation, and sport expertise development’ [online] Available from: http://expertadvantage.wordpress.com/2012/06/19/siblings/
Ronbeck, N., F., and Vikander, N., O., (2011) ‘The role of Peers: siblings and friends in the recruitment and development of athletes’, Acta Kinesiologiae Universitatis Tartuensis, Vol.17,
Toronto Sun (2014) ‘Dufour-Lapointe duo not first 1-2 Olympics sister act’ [online] Available from: http://www.torontosun.com/2014/02/09/dufour-lapointe-duo-not-first-1-2-olympics-sister-act