This study formed part of my Post Graduate Certificate in Sports Coaching with the University of Worcester in 2020. The full study is available here.
This portfolio will use a mixed quantitative-qualitative analysis of birth order data and biographical narratives from professional football players to explore the relationship between birth order and achievement in football.
This study is divided into five sections:
- We will begin by exploring researcher bias, describing the author's life experience and context in order to inform the reader of possible bias that may have influenced the creation of this portfolio.
- Next, will be a brief literature review of the research evidence supporting the effect of birth order on athlete learning and achievement.
- In the third section, the method used for the quantitative and qualitative analysis will be presented. We will provide the results of the quantitative analysis of birth order data from 81 of the top 100 Premier League football players of all time.
- Then, we will discuss the relationship between birth order and athlete development, advocating Wenger’s Communities of Practice as a valuable lens to view this through. We will use football players’ own descriptions of their childhood development environments to provide supporting qualitative data to help demonstrate this relationship and theory.
- Finally, we will conclude with a review of using Wenger's Communities of Practice in this context and provide important suggestions for further work in this area.
It’s important at this stage to be clear on what we mean by birth order and family size:
- Family size: the total number of siblings in a family
- Birth order: the age order that the child or athlete is ranked within those siblings such that the eldest is 1 and the second-born is 2 etc.
Section 1. Researcher bias
This section of the portfolio will examine the meaning the researcher has given to life experiences, and how this could potentially influence their research on birth order.
Smith describes naturalistic generalizability as happening "when the research resonates with the reader's personal engagement in life's affairs" (Smith, 2018). Every reader of this portfolio will have their own unique experience of childhood. Sibling relationships (or lack of siblings in the case of the only-child) will play an important role in making sense of their upbringing such that the research findings and evidence may or may not ring true for each reader. It is useful for the reader to start by comprehending the author's own context, so a brief description of the author's background and potential bias is provided below. The findings of research should be interpreted alongside knowledge of the researcher's life experience in order that the reader can make their own sense and meaning of the words and figures within (Elder and Miller, 1995).
(The text below is a summary version, and a more complete exploration of the author's background is provided in Appendix 1).
My brother (left) and me (right), 1985
I am the middle child of three, with a brother two years older and a sister two years younger than me. I have often felt that my brother had a tougher time growing up due to his place as first-born, and the additional pressure that came with that role. In particular, I feel I benefitted from having him ahead of me - as someone to follow, emulate and learn from - whereas he had no equivalent in that role.
I am a father of two children, Max (8 years old) and Hannah (6 years old). The experience of parenting two children has reinforced my belief that the first-born can have a different experience of childhood than later-born siblings.
My own context as a researcher may lead to two possible types of bias:
Confirmation bias is defined as "an incllnation to retain, or a disinclination to abandon, a currently favoured hypothesis" (Klayman, 1995, p386). It is possible that the meaning I have given to my own experience has led me to seek a particular conclusion to this research and lead it to a pre-determined finish point.
Selection bias. The validity of a piece of research can be compromised if the researcher makes errors when selecting the study population or distorts the evidence through biased selection of information (Tripepi et al, 2010). My experiences will affect how I understand and interpret the childhood stories of footballers. Therefore, they could influence what I have selected to include in this portfolio as evidence in the qualitative analysis.
In order to deal with these potential biases, I have used a mixed method approach to data analysis: A quantitative data analysis in order to ascertain the power of the relationship between birth order and achievement, together with a qualitative analysis in order to explore the causality of this relationship. I have not intentionally excluded specific data from either part of the analysis - except from when data is incomplete or absent. For transparency, I have included a detailed description and critique of the methodology (see section 3a).
Section 2: Do later-born athletes achieve more? A review of the research evidence.
Despite a wealth of research into birth order and personality (Carette et al, 2011; Rohrer et al, 2015; Sulloway, 1996) and birth order and academic success (Black et al, 2004; Black et al, 2011; Black et al, 2017; Eckstein et al, 2010; Rodgers et al, 2000), there are relatively few studies with a focus on birth order and athletic achievement – and none at all related to football. Given the Football Association’s large financial investment in coaching and talent development (The English Football Association, 2018), a more profound understanding of the effect of birth order on football development could be valuable and impactful.
Using research from a variety of sports, three studies have been identified that make a strong collective case that later-born siblings are more likely to achieve elite professional status than first-borns or only children: Wilson et al. investigated 229 self-selected athletes from Australia and Canada across 33 sports (Wilson et al, 2015). Brievik and Gilberg looked at pathways of 18 of the most internationally successful Norwegian athletes, paying particular attention to the environments they grew up in (Brievik and Gilberg, 1999). Gullich at al. compared the developmental pathways of super elite and elite GB international athletes (Gullich et al, 2019). In each of these studies, athletes were split into groups according to their level of performance or highest achievement, and the effect of birth order was then calculated by comparing the different performance groups. All three studies found that birth order was lower for higher performing athletes. For example, Wilson et al used a Pearson’s chi-squared test to determine significance levels for differences in birth order groups (only child; first-born; later-born) among athletes from different skill groups. A significant birth order effect was observed (P<0.01).
To conclude, there is limited research available that examines birth order and its link to athlete achievement (Wilson et al, 2015). It has not been possible to identify any research in this area that has a singular focus on football. We need to ask the question as to what relevance findings from studies on skiers and Olympic athletes have for the development of footballers, given the vastly complex and unique set of techniques and decisions involved in football. In addition, studies of populations from developed countries like Australia, Canada, Great Britain and Norway may have limited transfer to the different demographic, social and economic situations in Africa and South America where many footballers grow up. The socio-cultural dynamics of the family group are important when considering the effect of birth order, and these dynamics may vary between ethnic groups (Yamamoto Y. and Holloway S.D., 2010; Varela R.E. et al, 2009). Given this, it would be unwise to assume a uniform relationship between birth order and sport achievement across sports, countries and cultures.
Finally, it is vital to point out that when birth order is studied across individuals from different families, it is possible that findings are conflated with family size (Black, 2017). In other words: the data may appear to show the importance of having lots of older siblings, and we could therefore deduce that older siblings are the vital ingredient. However, we need to consider that families with lots of older siblings are larger families and are different in many ways to families with fewer siblings. For example, it is likely that families with many siblings have different socio-economic characteristics and different ways of parenting. It may not be the number of siblings that is important, but the ways that larger families operate in general, or factors relating to the types of community where larger families are common.
Section 3a: Methodology
In the absence of any existing research into birth order within professional football, this portfolio will examine the subject using a mixed method approach. In this section of the portfolio, the methodology will be explained for both parts of the research analysis.
A mixed method approach to research is one which collects and uses both quantitative and qualitative data. Typically, this kind of research collects both these types of data simultaneously, through questionnaires or interviews for example (Zohrabi M, 2013). This portfolio uses a mixed-method approach by collecting demographic data from a variety of sources and supplementing that quantitative data with qualitative narratives from footballers' biographies. By using a mixture of both methods, we aim to provide a robust, powerful, quantifiable, inferential statistic together with deep, rich experiential evidence with which to understand relationships and deduce causality.
The quantitative analysis: method
The study group for the quantitative analysis are footballers identified in 2019 by the Independent newspaper as the ‘Top 100 Premier League footballers of all time’ (Delaney, 2019). This group of footballers was chosen because it was recent; easily accessible; and because family data for each footballer should be accessible through internet searches or biographies.
For each footballer on the 'Top 100' list, a search was conducted to collect the following data:
- Month of birth;
- total number of siblings (family size);
- the birth order of the athlete and;
- the country they spent most time in as a child.
Using the 'total number of siblings' data, it is possible to create a frequency distribution of family size for this group of footballers (see Table 1). Using this frequency distribution, it is possible to calculate the expected birth order distribution of the families of the footballers. This is done in the following way: In a family with just one child, the expected birth order is 1; In a family of two siblings, we can say there is 0.5 chance of being first-born and 0.5 chance of being second-born; etc. This provides us with an expected birth order distribution, based upon the family sizes of the footballers, and we can then compare this to the observed birth order distribution. The quantitative analysis aims to test the null hypothesis that the observed birth order of footballers is not significantly different from the expected birth order. A Pearson's chi-squared test is used to compare the two distributions.
It was highlighted in Section 2 that issues relating to family size (such as different ways of parenting) can become a potential confounding factor in the analysis. This is one of the key challenges of making inference from birth order research (Black, 2017). The approach used in this portfolio negates this challenged as both the expected and observed birth order distributions are based on the same family size distribution.
The chi-squared test is chosen from a range of goodness--of-fit tests because: birth data is categorically grouped; birth order is a discrete, multinomial, interval variable; and each footballer's birth order is independent of the birth order of other footballers (Agresti, 2002) .Wilson et al used a Pearson's chi-squared test in their 2015 study when comparing the birth order distributions of elite and non-elite groups of athletes (Wilson et al, 2015).
When using the chi-squared method, it is recommended that numbers in each category should be five or more (Agresti, 2002). For this reason, we have used four categories in the analysis: Birth order 1 (first born); birth order 2 (second born); birth order 3 (third born); and birth order 4 or more. This grouping ensures that each category contains a minimum of five in all observed and expected categories. (The calculations used are shown in detail in Appendix 4).
It is acknowledged that there are limitations with the method used: Firstly, the research is incomplete as birth order data have been impossible to find for 19 of the 100 athletes. The data collected could potentially be biased toward those from large families as it may be easier to find family information about those athletes. However, there are no signs that the 19 athletes are different from the 81 athletes that were included in the study. The complete list of athletes and data can be seen in the Appendix 2 to this paper, and it is clear that there are several large families among the 19 athletes with incomplete data, with at least two of these athletes likely to be later-born in large families.
There are some cases where it is unclear whether the athlete grew up in the same household as their siblings and/or where the athlete grew up in a household with cousins as well as siblings. This makes the data and findings hard to interpret. Where this is clearly an issue, such as is the case with Kevin de Bruyne and Joe Cole - both of whom lived with a foster family for part of their childhood - they have been omitted from the study.
In addition, the quantitative analysis relies on some data collected from internet newspapers articles or personal blogs, and it should be noted that this kind of second-hand information could be inaccurate. Where possible, data found on webpages has been corroborated using biography and autobiography books.
The qualitative analysis: method
Whereas the quantitative analysis seeks to establish the strength of the relationship between our two variables - birth order and achievement in football, the qualitative analysis is undertaken in order to understand the nature of this relationship. In order to enhance the dependability and confirmability of the qualitative analysis, a thorough methodology and 'audit trail' is provided below (Smith and Sparkes, 2014).
The source of data for the qualitative analysis are the biographies (including autobiographies) of elite footballers in our study population. These books can provide rich stories from which deep evidence can be taken. Sporting autobiographies should be taken seriously as analytical and pedagogical resources, and several studies have used autobiographies of elite athletes to explore learning and development (Sparkes and Stewart, 2015). For example, Howells and Fletcher used a sample of eight autobiographies of Olympic swimming champions to explore the role of adversity in performance and success (Howells and Fletcher, 2015).
However, for the purposes of this portfolio, the source of qualitative data provides a major challenge: The biographies of elite footballers are rarely written to describe the learning journeys of the athletes, let alone to be used as sources for research into sibling relationships. Many accounts exclude any mention of a sibling at all, let alone rich descriptions of discovery in meaning or identity. Certainly, it would be advantageous to this research to be able to interview a selection of the study population and ask them specific questions around their family relationships and their football learning and development. However, within the scope of this research, this is not possible. The lack of prolonged investigation, persistent engagement with the footballers, and any kind of triangulation therefore raises questions as to the credibility of the qualitative analysis (Smith and Sparkes, 2014).
The biographies of 30 of the 100 footballers in our population have been read and analysed. These biographies were identified and included for the following reasons:
- The birth order and family size data of the footballer had been identified and included in the quantitative analysis;
- The book was available to read or purchase online and;
- An initial search of the book identified a narrative description of childhood learning and/or childhood family relationships.
In order to provide a framework to help make sense of the biographical narratives, Wenger's Communities of Practice has been used (Wenger, 1999). Stories of childhood football and the influence of older siblings have been sought and used to exemplify learning and relationships within Wenger's four key components of learning: Meaning; Practice; Community and Identity (Communities of Practice are explained in detail in Section 4.)
Section 3b: Results
Table 1 shows the family size distribution of 81 athletes (data for the remaining 19 could not be obtained). There are only three one-child families. Over half the families have two or three children. There are six very large families, with over seven children each.
Using the family size distribution in Table 1, it is possible to calculate the expected birth order distribution of the families of the 81 athletes. Table 2 compares the expected and observed birth order distributions.
A chi-squared test has been used to test the null hypothesis that there are no differences between the expected and observed distributions. The test rejects the null hypothesis and finds that there are differences between the expected and observed distributions, indicating that top football players are more likely to be later born [X2 (3, N = 81) = 12.3, p <.01]. (See Appendix 4 for a breakdown of the chi-squared calculation).
The chi-squared test result should be interpreted with caution as numbers in some categories are small and therefore the test result could be easily affected by outlying data points. Therefore, although the test statistic is significant at 1% level, we should not interpret the result to indicate a certain and strong relationship between the two variables (birth order and football achievement). It would be wiser to consider a probable relationship and conclude that further similar analysis is needed with a larger sample size (Agresti, 2002).
Further analysis has been undertaken to compare the birth order of attacking players and non-attacking players. This analysis finds a statistically significant difference in birth order, with the most effective goalscorers tending to have a greater number of older siblings. This analysis is presented in Appendix 5.
In addition, the family data for footballers has been used to compare Relative Age Effect between first borns and later borns. This provides an interesting analysis, and can be viewed in Appendix 6.
Notes on Table 2
The high birth order categories have been reduced to '4+' in order to ensure a minimum value of five in each cell (Agresti, 2002)
The chi-squared test result is significant at 1% level [X 2 (3, N = 81) = 12.3, p <.01]. This means we reject the null hypothesis, and conclude that there is a probable relationship between our two variables, birth order and achievement in football.
See Appendix 4 for full details of the chi-squared calculation.
Section 4: Using Wenger’s Communities of Practice to describe the football development of the younger sibling
The analysis of data from 81 professional footballers shows they are more likely to be later-born. Academic research and evidence provide a range of possible explanations for the different development experience of the younger sibling and these are shown and referenced in the timeline in Figure 1. In this section of the paper, we use Wenger’s Social Theory of Learning (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1999) to tell football development stories of the younger sibling.
Wenger’s Communities of Practice
Wenger believes that learning is fundamentally a social phenomenon, best accomplished through collaboration. He challenges the assumption that learning has a beginning and an end and that it is a result of teaching (Wenger, 1999). These premises fit with most early football development experiences which are typically a result of play rather than specific teaching, and usually take the form of varied and informal games. The collective play of children at football – whether within the family, or with friends or at a school or club - can be viewed as a Community of Practice (Christensen et al, 2011).
Christensen’s paper provides an important exploration of a football development group as a Community of Practice. However, she studies 17-18 years olds in the specific and unique context of a competitive, professional football academy. Relationships within the power structures of this environment may affect players’ behaviour and learning. Players may be rewarded or punished by the coach – by dropping them from the team, for example. It could be argued therefore that Christensen’s study context doesn’t meet one of Wenger’s three requirements of a Community of Practice – that of ‘mutual engagement’ among participants (Wenger E., 1999).
Younger children’s football play and learning environments may fit Wenger’s definition better: There is shared interest and strong collaborative relationships built through playing games of football together (mutual engagement); a common vocabulary to describe events and a collective endeavour to score goals and develop football skills (joint enterprise); and a shared menu of games to play and a shared history of important play and competition experiences (shared repertoire).
The conceptual framework for Wenger’s theory encompasses four components (Wenger, 1999), and this portfolio shall look at each of these in order to explore their relevance for football development in younger siblings. We will use arguments from the academic literature and examples from athletes’ own narratives of their football development to show how co-participation with an older sibling can help accelerate development. This is important as it will help us make sense of the results of our quantitative analysis, which has shown a probable relationship between birth order and football achievement.
Due to word count, only one example will be provided for each of the four components below. However further supporting qualitative evidence is provided in Appendix 3.
This section uses four younger sibling footballers as examples: MEANING: Ronaldinho (left) shown being picked up by his influential older brother; PRACTICE: Bergkamp (centre) on the cover of his superb autobiography; COMMUNITY: Roy Keane (top right in centre) in 1985, following in his older brothers' footsteps, as a new AFC Rockmount player; and IDENTITY: Paulo di Canio (bottom right) seen here in 2000 in a sporting gesture against Everton. He picked the ball up when through on goal so the opposition's goalkeeper could receive treatment for an injury.
Meaning – learning as experience (Ronaldinho)
Csikszentmihalyi argues that a unifying purpose, resolution and harmony are necessary in order to give meaning to experience and live within the transformative state of ‘flow’: “What is meaningful corresponds to group values… and the acceptance and respect of other people provide the parameters for inner order” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002, p222). The question is: to what extent can older siblings provide enough meaning to football learning in order that a younger sibling sacrifices their life and career in dedication to it? Or as Csikszentmihalyi might put it: how might an older sibling help avoid disorder and have harmony imposed on chaos?
Beni et al review fifty youth sport articles, identifying six common threads evident in how young people identify youth sport experiences as meaningful. These are: social interaction; fun; challenge; competition; motor competence; and personally-relevant learning (Beni et al, 2016). Kretchmar provides more detail, with a focus on joy: ‘Delight’ has been identified as one of the key purposes of a high-quality physical education (Ni Chroinin et al, 2018; Kretchmar, 2006). This aspect of meaning – football for joy - is described beautifully by Ronaldinho in this ‘Letter to My Younger Self’. He is talking of the impact his father and older brother, Roberto, had on his own quest for purpose in football:
“When you have a football at your feet, you are free. You are happy. It’s almost like you are hearing music. That feeling will make you want to spread joy to others… Creativity will take you further than calculation… The only advice I have to give you is this: Do it your way. Be free. Hear the music. This is the only way for you to live your life.” (Ronaldinho, 2017)
Of course, Ronaldinho is not on the list of 100 best Premier League footballers, but his story serves as excellent example of an older sibling strengthening the younger sibling’s understanding of what learning in football ultimately means.
Practice – learning as doing (Dennis Bergkamp)
Early football play is a great example of situated learning. Physical play in games provides children with an active engagement in the world. Competence in football is recognised in the practical vocabulary of skills, tricks, scoring goals and playing the game well. The community of practice that a younger sibling joins will determine their worth by their ability to do things with a ball, to be a useful team-mate and be a tough opponent. A child with an older sibling may develop this physical vocabulary at an accelerated rate by serving as apprentice to their older sibling – in particular by observing and competing (Wilson et al, 2015; Davis and Meyer, 2008) with their ‘more knowledgeable other’. This process is described well by Dennis Bergkamp, youngest of four brothers:
“For Marcel (Dennis’s older brother), the key was his powers of observation: ‘When he came to see me playing, he saw everything down to the smallest detail. Afterwards he could always tell you exactly how situations unfolded and who was standing where. Dennis was always an excellent observer’ ” – Dennis Bergkamp, youngest of four (Bergkamp, 2014, p13)
Older siblings play an important role in practice as they may provide more regular and varied opportunities for games and other physical activities (Hallal et al, 2006). However, older siblings are not just important components in physical and technical development. Azmitia and Hesser found that young children were more likely to observe, emulate, and confer with older siblings than with older peers. In addition, older siblings have been shown to provide more explanation and feedback than do peers (Azmitia and Hesser, 1993; Davis and Meyer, 2008), and this is exemplified by Bergkamp’s story again:
“The Bergkamp boys played not only here in the street, but in the corridor of the flat and on local patches of grass. Later, as his brothers had done, he (Dennis) joined Wilskracht. He gives greater credit to his brothers. ‘They acted as a sounding board, and I needed that more than I needed a manager. I never had many friends as a kid. I didn’t need any because I had the best three at home.’ ” (Bergkamp, 2014, p12)
This kind of support and explanation enables the younger sibling to be accepted and recognised as competent in the communities of practice they join.
Community – learning as belonging (Roy Keane)
Football is a valued enterprise and has many communities. It is likely that a child footballer has a rich landscape of practice made up of several different communities and groups that they play with (for example: in the family, at school, at a club). As Wenger says, “there are times in our lives when learning is intensified… when we wish to engage in new practices and seek to join new communities” (Wenger, 1999, page 8). In order to gain the opportunity to play at a higher level, to learn from playing against more competent opponents, and to gain access to more coaching, a child needs to move into some of the more structured settings at some point.
Having an older sibling who has already made the journey from legitimate peripheral participation to full participation within the community, may ensure a faster and more certain journey for the younger sibling. A good example comes from the autobiography of Roy Keane:
“When forced to choose between boxing and soccer there was never any doubt what the answer would be. Nor was there any doubt that I would opt for Rockmount AFC instead of my local club in Mayfield where all my school friends played. The fact that Denis and Johnson (older brothers) played for Rockmount was one good reason… At the end of my first season at Rockmount, I was voted Player of the Year. I was incredibly proud that I had upheld the Keane family tradition at the club where my brothers had played.” (Keane, 2011, p4)
In this example, football is seen as a tradition, and it has a meaning within the family. It is a good example to show the strength of the family bond. It is likely that once joining Rockmount, Keane competed harder than his team-mates in order to uphold the family tradition. He may have been able to interpret this new world in a certain way more quickly than others. Interestingly, the relationship with his brothers was key to this development even though his brothers weren’t physically present in his club community of practice at the time he was playing there.
Identity – learning as becoming (Paulo di Canio)
Wenger expresses the search for identity as a collaborative journey: Survival together is an important enterprise, whether surviving consists in the search for food … shelter, or in the quest for a viable identity (Wenger, 1999). Older siblings are role models, but they are also more than that. Older siblings can change how we talk about who we are becoming and can provide a meaningful trajectory for younger siblings. Recognition of changes in our practice, or improvement in our skills, can help us understand how learning has changed who we are becoming.
There is evidence in the stories of professional footballers that older siblings affect what type of footballer and what type of person the younger sibling becomes. Paulo Di Canio provides one of the strongest identities among the 81 footballers in the study. Di Canio is well-known for his fiery personality and his resolve to stand-up for what he believes in. Several key incidents during his playing career make him stand out from other footballers and provide an insight into his identity beyond a description of his playing style or technical abilities. The most famous incident involves him pushing a referee to the ground during a Premier League game. In fact, Di Canio was involved in the incident with the referee because he was helping restrain an opponent and friend, Patrick Vieira. During the fracas that followed, Di Canio was punished by the referee, and then reacted angrily for what he now describes as an ‘injustice’ (Di Canio, 2000). It is interesting to read in his autobiography how Di Canio attributes his fierce desire for justice to his older brother Antonio:
“It was Antonio who made me want to become a footballer… I loved watching him play…He had natural flair, talent, creativity, vision, all the ingredients you need to succeed as a footballer. All but one: he wasn’t right in the head…He would speak his mind, always and often with little tact… He was considered a loose cannon, a genuine talent cursed by an unpredictable temperament. Sound familiar? Let’s just say I inherited some of Antonio’s qualities. Like Antonio I have never allowed myself to be silenced, I have never been afraid to speak my mind.” (Di Canio, 2000, p10)
This provides a good example of the collaborative journey towards identity that Wenger describes. Growing up with an older brother allowed Di Canio to become someone recognisable, and football allowed him a vehicle through which to express his developing identity.
<<The video below provides examples of football stories from England national women's team players>>
Section 6: Conclusion
This paper has explored the importance of birth order in football development. A quantitative analysis has been undertaken, using birth order and family size data from 81 of the best-ever Premier League footballers. A possible advantage in being a later-born sibling has been identified. Wenger’s work on Communities of Practice has been used as a framework to describe the accelerated learning experience of the younger sibling. Qualitative descriptions from footballers’ biographies have been used to demonstrate how older siblings might accelerate the learning journeys in Wenger’s four key components of learning.
This section will conclude with two questions:
- To what extent does Wenger's Communities of Practice provide an appropriate and effective framework and vocabulary for describing birth order and learning in football?
- What should be the focus of future work in the area of birth order and football development?
Using Wenger's Communities of Practice to describe learning in football
In Section 4 (and Appendix 3), we used four key components of Wenger's Communities of Practice as a framework to examine football learning and the influence of older siblings. It is worth reflecting on how well this learning theory fits within the specific context of early football development. We will begin by considering the use of social learning theory broadly, and then focus more on the use of Wenger in particular.
Research into birth order and development (as presented in Figure 1) seems to fit within one of two broad recognisable theories: On the one hand, there is the work of Adler and Sulloway - based on Darwin’s theory of evolution - that later-borns need to be different and take risks in order to establish themselves in the family and warrant parental recognition (Ansbacher and Ansbacher, 1956; Sulloway, 1996). This perspective views younger sibling development as individual ‘survival’ responses to the competitive environment they find themselves in. On the other hand, there is the idea – framed by Wenger’s Social Theory of Learning (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1999) - that older siblings provide support, understanding and opportunity, and the chance for accelerated development through collaborative play, feedback, explanation, imitation and emulation. When reading the biographies of the elite footballers, it was clear that they viewed their older siblings as supportive and beneficial, and often the older sibling was the key instigator in the younger sibling starting to play the game. There were no narratives which promoted the theory that the younger sibling chose football in order to survive and to pursue a noticeably different and more risky pathway than a more academic older sibling.
However, among the descriptions of early football learning there are some examples of drill-like practice which seem to stand out from the rest. Typically involving their dad or uncle, some footballers describe learning that may be better understood using a behaviourist theory of learning. David Beckham provides a good example of learning through rote practice with his dad:
"I think I was programmed by my dad to some extent...The training he gave me as a kid got me to where I am today... We would work on passing, crossing and shooting for hours and hours." (Beckham 2000, p7)
We don't know from his description what those sessions with his dad were like, so it is difficult to know how well a social learning theory fits. However, the way he describes the experience using terms like 'programmed', 'training' and 'work', could lead us to envisage a learning environment based on reward and punishments. What we may conclude from this example is that there was probably some 'carrot and stick' learning of techniques happening alongside the social construction of knowledge and understanding for some players in their early childhood.
Generally, when early football experiences are described they are reported in the context of a group of friends or siblings. The social aspect of the experience is remembered and reported with greater weight than the learning that happened. Typically, footballers seem to remember who was there, better than what took place. Many footballers' stories include a memory of when they moved into a new Community of Practice and were the youngest child in an older group. This seems to be an important memory among all those they could have reported, and our understanding of this important process is helped by Wenger's vocabulary describing the journey to 'full participation' in a new Community. A broad generalisation of the biographies would be that footballers describe their learning journeys as a series of upward, sequential steps from one team or club or environment to the next one - and that older siblings play an important role in preparing them for the next step along that pathway. This supports the argument for using a social learning lens rather than a more Darwinian approach.
Finally, we will consider the choice of Wenger's theory in particular, and using his four key components in relation to sibling relationships: When reviewing footballer's biographies for evidence, it was easier to identify appropriate narratives for some of the components than for others: Within the domain of Practice ('learning as doing'), there were several footballers who described early football Communities of Practice in detail, and it was clear that older siblings played an important role in learning. Dennis Bergkamp's brilliant 'Stillness and Speed' for example contains long and interesting narratives about early football and the relationship between the four brothers growing up together (Bergkamp, 2014). However, the search for evidence in the components Meaning ('learning as experience') and Identity ('learning as becoming') was more challenging: Very few footballers reflect directly on who they are and the purpose football provides in their lives. Where there is some notion of these elements, they are usually attributed to parents rather than older siblings. Even the two examples quoted in Section 4 for Meaning - Ronaldinho and Trent Alexander-Arnold - have as much to do with parents as older siblings. A conclusion might be that older siblings seem to influence learning within Practice and Community, but it is parents who have most influence within Meaning and Identity.
Further work on birth order and football development
The England Football Association’s Player Insight team are responsible for advancing and applying knowledge around football development, with the goal of developing and identifying more and better talented footballers. In pursuing this goal, an understanding of the effects of birth order could potentially be just as useful and powerful as intelligence on relative age effect. However, the volume and importance of research into birth order is dwarfed by the quantity of literature on relative age effect (Wilson et al, 2015; Fleming and Fleming, 2012). Research into birth order could provide the next big breakthrough in our understanding of talent development processes and provide insight that influences and advances football education for children.
The results of this portfolio may not be generalised across all levels of football, as we have only considered the very elite, male players. This elite, male sample is not representative of football as a whole, and we can't therefore confidently apply these findings to other groups. Further work on family size could usefully examine the birth order distribution of younger footballers selected to football academies (age 9-10 years of age) or selected to England youth teams (ages 14-16 years of age). This is recommended as it would help determine to what extent the younger sibling effect is influencing talent identification and recruitment decisions in early and late childhood. This could highlight the need for more mixed-age environments which allow all children access to a ‘more knowledgeable other’ in their earliest communities of practice.
The study group used in this paper are all male. It would be useful to determine if similar relationships between birth order and football achievement exist for female players. In particular, it would be useful to better understand the impact of having an older brother on the development pathways of girl footballers. Sample sizes in future work of this kind would need to be considerably larger than the 81 used in this portfolio, in order to produce a reliable and powerful inferential statistic.
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Appendix 1: Link here
Table 3. Data for each footballer on the list. As used in the quantitative analysis. Methodology described in Section 3a. List from: The Independent Newspaper, Saturday 30th March 2019 (Delaney, 2019) (link)
Appendix 3 and Appendix 4: Link here
Analysis of most prolific goalscorers
In addition to the quantitative analysis described in Section 3, a further analysis has been undertaken to compare the birth order of the best attacking players with the players who score less regularly.
The 30 most effective goal-scorers have been identified from the sample population of 81 elite footballers. This has been done by calculating the games per goal ratio for each player. Data have been taken from the Premier League website in order to do this (The Premier League, 2020).
The 30 most effective strikers are shown in the table below, along with their birth order, family size (total number of siblings in the family) and games per goal data. None of the 15 most prolific Premier League strikers are first-born.
Each of the 81 footballers has been grouped into one of the following two birth order categories: (a) First or second born; or (b) third born or later than third born. A chi-squared test has been conducted which compares the birth order category distribution of the 30 attackers in the table above, with the birth order category distribution of the other 51 footballers in our sample of 81. The calculations are shown below.
We can conclude that there is a significant difference in the birth order between the most prolific attackers and the less-regular goal-scorers [X2 (1, N = 81) = 7.01, p <.01]. Defenders and midfielders (and other less potent attackers) are much more likely to be first or second born in the family, when compared to the best strikers. The best strikers are more likely than expected to be third born or later.
We need to consider this test result carefully. Although there is clearly a relationship between the two variables, we need to consider the confounding factor of family size. When we count total numbers of siblings for footballers in the two groups, we find that the more prolific goal-scorers have an average family size of 4.07 (n=30) and the less prolific goal-scorers have an average family size of 3.02 (n=51). Using a Wilcoxon Rank-Sum test we find that this difference in family size between the most prolific and less prolific goal scorers is statistically signiifcant (z = 2.89, p<.01). We should conclude therefore that goalscorers seem to come from larger families and therefore have more siblings, both older and younger ones.
A discussion is therefore needed on why the best strikers come from larger families and have more siblings. This is a fascinating finding and worthy of deeper detail than this portfolio is able to provide. The previous exploration of Wenger's Communities of Practice provides clues, especially within Wenger's area of Practice (or learning by 'doing'): Very simply, more siblings means more opportunity to practice.
Appendix 6: The 28 first-borns
This portfolio has examined the link between birth order and achievement in football. A study of birth order among 81 professional football players has shown a statistically significant effect of birth order. This would seem to indicate an advantage in being later-born. However, there are 28 first-borns among the sample of 81 footballers, and this shows that it is common for footballers to achieve at the very highest level without having an older sibling. This section will examine the 28 of the 81 athletes who are first-born, seeking to better understand their experiences of football development without an older sibling. This will include a brief exploration of the link between birth order and relative age effect.
The 28 first-borns
Approximately one-third of the 81 footballers are first-born, including three only-children. In order to make an argument for the importance of birth order to football development, we need to explore how these first-borns became successful without a big brother or sister. If having an older sibling is important, then how have these 28 footballers achieved so much without one?
In fact, many footballers in this group of 28 grew up playing with ‘more knowledgeable others’ in the form of older cousins and neighbourhood friends who effectively play the role of the older siblings. For example, David Silva had several cousins who he lived with, and Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney had older cousins and friends who joined them regularly for mixed-age street football or youth club sessions. The following quote from first-born David Seaman highlights the importance of older children in forming meaning and building identity in football. It shows the vital importance of mixed-age play, especially for those without older siblings:
“It was a combined primary and junior school, and there was an all-important line which divided the younger kids from where the older ones played. At that age the line seemed a bigger barrier than any national border, and I used to look over at the older boys playing football, just wishing I could join in. When I was finally old enough to cross that playground line, the other boys said to me straightaway ‘You’re tall, you can go in goal’. I did as I was told – you do when you’re the new boy – and found instantly that I enjoyed it. Best of all some of the older boys clapped and told me how well I had done.” (Seaman, 2000, p27)
Relative age effect and birth order
A comparison of relative age effect between first-born footballers and later-born footballers shows an interesting potential trend. Figure 1 below uses the month of birth data for each athlete in our earlier study, comparing the 28 first-born athletes to the 53 later-born athletes. For each athlete, month of birth has been used to determine whether they were born early in the academic year (1st third) or towards the end of the academic year (3rd third). As many of the athletes didn’t grow up in the UK, this data has been adjusted for differences in academic calendars by country (e.g. Spain’s academic year starts in January).
Relative age effect is easily identifiable among the first-born players, reinforcing patterns found in previous research of elite football players (Fleming J. and Fleming S., 2012). The phenomenon is not so apparent among later-born children, although a chi squared test shows the difference in trend between first-borns and later-borns is not significant [X2 (2, N = 81) = 3.28, p =.19]. These findings could suggest that having older siblings might compensate for the disadvantage of being younger than peers within school and football club age groupings, although it is unclear at what ages this is important.
Reflections on learning
In this final section, the author reflects on his own learning and personal journey as a result of completing this research project.
The power of qualitative research
My background and previous experience is as a quantitative researcher. My first graduate job was with the Office for National Statistics, developing research using the General Practice Research Database - a collection of patient diagnostic and prescription data from GP surgeries. I then spent over two years at the Medical Research Council, building a system to evaluate the impact of research grants, with a focus on publication citation rates. Later I developed intelligent reporting of integrated care for the Care Quality Commission using standardised hospital metrics. This background has meant I am biased towards numbers and measurements, and have always found greatest value in large-sample quantitative research that ends in an inferential test statistic. Before starting this particular University course and project, I did not see much purpose to qualitative research. I felt that 'case-study' type research was: potentially a great deal more biased by the story the researcher wanted to tell; and that low sample sizes meant the research was useless as it could not be applied to the population as a whole. Using a mixed-method approach in this portfolio has been a new experience, and one that has got me thinking. Despite the difficulties of using footballers' biographies as qualitative evidence (as explained in Section 3a), there was certainly lots to be gained in using the stories and memories of a few of the sample population. This helped me to understand the sibling relationships and birth order beyond just the strength measure provided by the chi-squared test, and added greatly to the overall comprehension of how later-borns have a different journey from first-borns.
Using a learning theory
My interest in birth order started when I was very young. Growing up as a middle child, I often considered by position to be advantageous to that of my older brother or younger sister. I remember during the 1986 World Cup finding out that the world's best player, Diego Maradona, was the last-born of five, and I recall that my theory of the effect of birth order on football achievement started around then. More recently, as described in Appendix 1, my own parenting experience has confirmed my beliefs that first-borns get a different experience. I have had many conversations with my wife, and with other parents with multiple children, and these have often concluded with an agreement that the younger siblings seem to cope, learn and thrive in different ways, ways which are less dependent on parental interaction. However, until starting this project, I had no frame or vocabulary to describe or house my thoughts in a coherent way. I had not considered in detail what I meant by 'learning' or 'knowledge' or 'development', or how exactly that happened for different people in different contexts. Using Wenger's Communities of Practice has alowed me to frame my own thoughts within a theory and this has been a new experience for me. I have grown particularly by considering in more detail what I mean by the nature of knowledge and how exactly it is 'learnt' socially. I have long believed in the power of the social environment to dictate what learning is possible, and Wenger's four components of Meaning, Practice, Community and Identity have provided an effective model to attach my beliefs to. Specifically, I have found it interesting to consider that Practice and Community (learning by doing and learning by belonging) are very much influenced by older siblings, whereas Meaning and Identity (learning by experience and learning by becoming) are more within the influence of the parent(s).
[To exemplify my growing ontological understanding, and as part of the Free Play community on Twitter, I made a short video linking the value of Free Play to Learning by using Wenger's four key components of learning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYhJbohOASQ&t=22s ]
During the course of this project, I have had various conversations with my siblings and close friends about the research I have been undertaking. This has brokered interesting exchanges with my older brother in particular, where we have shared memories of our childhood. It has been fascinating to explore how we remember the same events in different ways. It has helped strengthen our relationship and understand each other's contexts better. For example, my older brother has one child, and we talked about how her (my niece) experience of learning will be different from that of my
two children, and how that affects what we need to provide for our children as parents.
Overall, this project has helped me reflect on my own parenting, and what my children need from me. Before starting this project, I had aimed to parent both my children in consistently the same way, following the same broad principles of guided discovery and independent, learner-led learning. However, now I see that my oldest child might need some more direction and purpose from me, and I need to play a bigger part as a role model and someone to follow and emulate. He perhaps needs direction (Wenger might say 'a meaningful trajectory') in a way that his younger sister perhaps doesn't.
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