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Author: Ben Oakley

The social Olympian: Family and geography

Updated Friday, 16th September 2011

Ben Oakley explores some of the social factors significant in developing top sports people.

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Family at sunset

Social circumstances and interaction play a key role in the development of sporting talent. Some researchers expressed this starkly:  ‘many of us had the misfortune to be born to the wrong parents … in the wrong place, and so were deprived of the chance of excellence in countless activities’ (Bailey and Toms). Let's explore this statement further.


Families’ capacity to provide the resources of time and money vary according to their circumstances, and those that face shortages may have difficulty providing children with competitive sporting opportunities. Research suggests that children are more likely to achieve success in sport if they come from a certain type of family: this relates to family resources (financial, time and knowledge). For example, children are more likely to achieve success if they come from:

•    a family in a higher socioeconomic group;
•    a family of relatively small size (i.e. number of children);
•    a two parent family
•    a family with parents who have reached high standards in sport (some genetic influence here)

Of course there are exceptions to these findings especially when a shortage of family resources is compensated by close knit and supportive coaches, clubs and squads. But families play a major role in influencing both children’s entry into sport and their focus towards competition, and provide the continuous practical and emotional support on which their progress depends. As children develop, it’s their families that meet the financial costs (clothing, equipment, competition fees), provide transport to venues, and adapt their routines to further the child’s sports career. Providing such support is not easy, and may cause stress within the family.

Tess Kay’s studies of families in England identified themes such as:

1. The financial impact: Families found the financial costs of supporting their child’s sport as the main, overriding implication of elite training. In a simple sport such as swimming this might account for up to 12 per cent of total income spent on their child’s sport whilst in equipment-based sports such as canoeing, sailing and equestrian it could be double that. Supporting elite junior sport also requires a high time commitment.

2. Family activity patterns: A second substantial impact on families was the effect on family activity patterns. The time demands of the sport affected the daily, weekly and annual rhythms of family life. Several families Tess Kay interviewied commented on the disappearance of ‘normal’ elements of everyday family life.

3. The priority given to sports in family life: Supporting talented children’s success placed such extensive demands on families that providing this support became the dominant influence on the family lifestyle. Kay’s Families did not accept the demands placed on them unreservedly:

"We feel that we could probably do even more, take him to tournaments further afield, but I am not actually sure that we would be able to go to that level. We can cope at this level but probably not any more" (Tennis player’s mother)


The area in which you grow up and facilities you have access to are very, very important for later success. It is difficult to become an expert in gymnastics,  rowing or any sport without a good club nearby. Scientists analysed the birthplace of more than 2,000 athletes in a variety of American professional sports: they discovered something peculiar. While approximately 52 per cent of the USA population resides in cities with more than 500,000 people, such cities only produce on average 18 per cent of the professional players in ice hockey, basketball, baseball and golf. They concluded that children living in smaller cities have more opportunities for the development of sporting expertise than their peers in larger cities or the countryside. There is not space here to consider explanations of this but, for me, it is connected to children thriving on being ‘a big fish in a small pond’ rather than ‘a small fish in a big pond’ (i.e. a large city).

One final thought. Consider the limited amount of sports children in less developed countries have access to, let alone the coaching expertise, facilities and money needed for Olympic success. We analysed the medal results for each continent at the last two Olympic Games and if you live in Africa you’re only likely to succeed in athletics, boxing or football.

So, in sporting terms, there is an element of good fortune and luck not only in who your parents are but also where you live. Social factors interact with psychological and physical influences in a complex way which we are only beginning to understand.

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