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There's More To Being An Elite Athlete Than Discipline And Practice


Being an elite athlete takes discipline, talent and hard work. But according to a new book, there are also a bunch of invisible factors that help create champions. Planet Money's Greg Rosalsky has the story.

GREG ROSALSKY, BYLINE: When COVID shutdown suspended live sports this year, "The Last Dance" threw us all a life preserver. The ESPN documentary miniseries let us all relive the magic of Michael Jordan, and it gave us insights into some of the factors that led him to become one of the greatest athletes of all time. Here he is talking to ESPN.


MICHAEL JORDAN: That competitiveness within me started when I was a kid.

ROSALSKY: One of the factors that Michael Jordan credited with driving him to win on the court was playing with his older brother, Larry.


JORDAN: I don't think from a competitive standpoint, I would be here without the confrontations with my brother. I always felt like I was fighting Larry for my father's attention.

ROSALSKY: According to a new book, "The Best: How Elite Athletes Are Made," having older brothers or sisters isn't just a great plot point in a life story. It shows up in a lot of research about who is more likely to become a champion. The book was co-written by sports scientist Mark Williams and sports writer Tim Wigmore.

TIM WIGMORE: Even when two siblings both become elite athletes, the younger one is better in about two out of three cases.

ROSALSKY: Wigmore says another good example for the younger sibling effect is Serena Williams. She has an older sister, Venus, who is also a great tennis player. But Venus didn't win as many Grand Slam titles as Serena. As kids, younger siblings are exposed to sports through their older siblings, and they're usually smaller and weaker than them, which means they have to work harder to keep up. Wigmore says this helps them gain skills and grit.

WIGMORE: And so with Serena Williams, actually, you look at pictures of her playing with Venus as a kid and there's often two or three inches between them. And that means she has to try and make up for that that whole time.

ROSALSKY: Another factor helping younger siblings, he says, is parents are usually more hands off with them. Younger siblings are often given more time to mess around and play sports with their friends or older siblings. This informal play helps them not only play more but also develop their athletic skills through trial and error, as opposed to top-down rigorous instruction.

WIGMORE: Kids who do more informal play, it's better for their creativity. They're also just exposed to more variables, more different situations. They get more chance to learn, more chance to fail. And that's really good for you.

ROSALSKY: Another ingredient that helps create elite athletes - growing up in a midsize town, a place small enough to have lots of space and opportunity to play sports but big enough to have good coaches, facilities and competitors.

WIGMORE: Where you grow up is one of the biggest factors that influences whether you become an elite athlete. So in the U.S., amazingly, if you grow up in a town of between 50,000 and 100,000, you are 15 times more chance of becoming an elite athlete than if you grew up in areas smaller or bigger.

ROSALSKY: Michael Jordan, for example, grew up in the midsize town of Wilmington, N.C., which was under 100,000 people when he grew up there. During the 20th century, Wilmington produced a whole host of elite athletes, including Sugar Ray Leonard, an Olympic gold medalist in boxing. Sugar Ray, by the way, also had an older brother, Roger, who started boxing first. As for Wigmore, he was not raised in a midsize town. He's an only child, and he hasn't really benefited from any of the other factors he writes about in his book.

WIGMORE: And that helps to explain why I write on sport rather than play it.

ROSALSKY: We can't all slam dunk like Michael Jordan. Greg Rosalsky, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SABZI'S "ON THE COUCH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Since 2018, Greg Rosalsky has been a writer and reporter at NPR's Planet Money.