How to breed a sports star - and lessons for combatting poverty


Everyone knows that to succeed in sports you have to be bigger, faster, stronger, and more committed than your opponents. Oh, and be born between September and December.

Numerous studies have shown that a disproportionate number of top-level athletes are born towards the start of the academic year. At a recent U17s European Championship, an astonishing 75% of football players were born between September and December. Similarly, almost half of all the Hall of Famers at the National Football Museum are born during the same four months. And when we stop to consider this strange phenomenon, it all makes perfect sense.

When children, donning their impossibly cute, oversized uniforms, head to school for the first time, there could be as much as an entire year between the oldest and youngest in each class. For adults, this in not so significant, but for a five-year-old, that’s 1/5 of their life! That makes a massive difference in terms of their physical, emotional, and intellectual development. At that early age children do a lot of growing; it should come as no surprise that the older children will tend to be the biggest, fastest and strongest. It’s not all down to natural talent!

Whilst the oldest are praised, gain confidence, and thrive on a sense of superiority; the youngest and smallest tend to shy away from competition. And that quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; children who consider themselves good at an activity will do more of it, enjoying the sense of achievement, and through doing so, practice and improve further. Conversely, children will avoid activities they are likely to lose at and miss out on improving at the same rate as those already enjoying a competitive edge.

This same effect can be seen in academic records, though the competition is obviously not a fierce as in the win or lose nature of sports. However, younger children have to work significantly harder to make the jump up to the language and numeracy level of their older peers. It is easy for some to become discouraged or to believe they are not as intelligent.

In the same way that children can perceive and perpetuate a difference between themselves and their older, stronger peers; children born into poverty have a disadvantage. Our work with students has taught us that social, economic, and often physical (through malnutrition) hurdles can be significant and prohibitive to success. Children who, for a complexity of reasons, grow up believing that they belong to a certain underclass, or that they do not belong in the city alongside more ‘successful’ people, find it uncomfortable and hard to break free from the shackles of generational poverty and unemployment. The same may, to some degree, be true for you.

So how do we level the playing field? Our job is to give each young person the space to explore their skills and interest with confidence, and to break down the myth of competition. For we are not in competition, but community. Each person has a unique contribution to make and a responsibility to bring their best. When we do so, we will run faster and jump higher than we ever thought possible. That is the message for the young people of Gituamba and indeed all people everywhere.

Daniel Chalke