By Dr Laura Finnegan
Successful athletic development requires athletes to navigate a range of ‘secondary factors’ that can impede or facilitate development (Wattie, Schorer & Baker, 2018). One such factor appears to the population characteristics of where the athlete was born. Theories of development emphasise the importance of the synergistic relationship between environmental and individual characteristics for elite development (c.f. Weissensteiner, Abernathy, & Farrow, 2009; Baker & Horton, 2004; Bronfenbrenner, 1977). There are a multitude of characteristics that impact on talent development in football (e.g. psychological, physical, social, environment, culture, luck, family, opportunity, access to coaching), this piece will examine the environmental characteristics of areas associated with development. The football spatial landscape is a key consideration for any Football Association or professional club, as organisational processes can influence player development (i.e. through the location of ‘centres of excellence’ or scouts in certain areas). The attributes of talent ‘hotspots’ or ‘hothouses’ are increasingly becoming of interest to researchers in an attempt to both identify some commonalities and also to gain insight into attributes that could potentially be replicated elsewhere.
Not a single player from England’s women’s world cup squad in 2019 was born in London, in fact, the majority of the squad were from the northern half of the country. An analysis of the English men’s team also showed the north-west being the most successful region for producing senior internationals. Differing developmental contexts and environmental and institutional processes can shape sporting landscapes and player production (Finnegan et al., 2017; Woolcock & Burke, 2013; Baker et al., 2009). MacDonald and colleagues (2009) suggest that “the birthplace effect is powerful and systematic and plays a significant role in sport expertise” (p. 236).
The Birthplace effect research
A place of birth effect (or ‘community size effect’, Côté et al., 2006) has been explored in many countries, e.g., US, UK, Germany, Ireland, Denmark (Finnegan et al., 2017; Rossing et al., 2016; Baker et al., 2009), with the variation in optimal population size for sport expertise attainment suggesting that results are buffered by geographic, sport-specific and sociocultural factors (Hancock et al., 2017). In their study of college footballers in America, Bowen and Fludd (1982) found that half of the total participants were from towns of less than 30,000, with 15% coming from moderate-sized towns (30,000-100,000), and 37% from larger communities (greater than 300,000). Although noting that exceptions do occur, Baker and colleagues (2009) found that elite Olympic athletes were less likely to come from very small or excessively large communities. An over-representation of players from smaller and medium-sized communities was found in Canadian professional and Olympic hockey players, while players from large cities and rural areas were under-represented (Curtis & Birch, 1987). MacDonald and colleagues (2009) found an over-representation of athletes from cities with less than 500,000 population and an under-representation of athletes from cites with a population of over 500,000. This was consistent with Côté and colleagues (2006) findings, who noted a greater probability of becoming an elite athlete in cities with a population of fewer than 250,000. Despite over half of the US population living in large cities (greater than 500,000), proportionately less professional athletes originated in such areas (ranged from 29.4% in basketball down to 13.1% in golf). Baker et al., (2009) stated that differences exist across country borders and sport contexts. For example, Canadian Olympic athletes were more likely to come from cities of over 100,000 inhabitants while in the UK areas of between 10,000-29,999 were over 2.34 times more likely to produce Olympic athletes, with areas of 500,000 – 999,999 being 69% less likely to produce Olympic athletes. Other inconsistencies can be seen with within-country variations across sports, with Lidor et al., (2010) finding a place of birth effect in Israeli soccer, handball and volleyball but not in male basketball players. Baker et al. (2014) highlight the importance of breaking down such analyses even further, noting that both Vancouver (pop. 410,000) and Edmonton (pop. 460,000) fell into the same category (i.e. 250,000-499,999) yet Edmonton produced 26 NHL draftees with Vancouver only managing to produce 9 draftees during the same period. In addition to population size, the density of the location is another important variable in analysing talent production (Rossling et al., 2016; Baker et al., 2009)
Place of birth explanatory factors
The opportunities afforded to the development of expertise and playing standards between smaller and larger cities differ (MacDonald et al., 2009; Weissensteiner, Abernathy, & Farrow, 2009) with sporting and social infrastructure related to population size influencing talent development (Hancock et al., 2017). Smaller cities and towns have been reported to provide unique advantages in terms of talent development environments, expertise development and opportunities (MacDonald et al., 2009). These opportunities could include access to elite clubs which have been shown to influence the probability of becoming an elite footballer (Rossing et al., 2016). Specifically, smaller cities and towns tend to provide more opportunities for play (as street and traffic danger is reduced), greater social networks and development of social and motor skills (Baker et al., 2009; MacDonald et al., 2009; Evans, 2006; Côté, 1999). In smaller communities’ children were more likely to walk or cycle to school, whereas children in larger communities (especially those living in apartments) are significantly more likely to be sedentary (Mitas et al., 2009). Côté and colleagues (2006) advanced the theory of differing psycho-social and physical environmental conditions experienced by athletes from large urban centres and smaller rural locations, suggesting that the more informal and familiar environment is more conducive to success and lower levels of dropout (Imtiaz, Hancock, Vierimaa, & Côté, 2014). Psychosocially, smaller communities may allow for greater integrative approaches to sport participation that engage family units, foster coach-athlete relationships, promote positive social norms and promote the culture of greater pride in sports teams (Bale, 2003; MacDonald et al., 2009). Socially cohesive neighbourhoods can ease parental concerns about time spent outside the home and in the surrounding areas (Kneeshaw-Price et al., 2013). Further possible explanations for the place of birth effect have been described by (Curtis & Birch, 1987), for example the idea that sport as a potential profession offers an avenue for social mobility, of which there may be fewer opportunities in lesser populated areas, compared to more densely populated areas where there may be more opportunities and that originating in a small town may also promote physical toughness which may be valued in a team sport. A ‘big fish-little pond’ effect may occur in smaller cities, with youth athletes more likely to have elevated self-confidence and greater expectation for success (Marsh et al., 1995). Limited sporting opportunities can create a stronger cultural norm for dominant sports in smaller communities (Rossing et al., 2016). There may also be per head of capita less elite teams in larger areas than smaller cities resulting in greater opportunities to make these squads and thus becoming visible to scouts (Curtis & Birch, 1987). Finnegan et al. (2016) found that youth footballers were more likely to gain access to a Football Associations talent development programme if they were based in lower population areas. Rossing and colleagues (2016) found that the optimal development community size for an elite footballer was medium (30,000-50,000) but ideally with a high population density. Curtis and Birch (1987) suggested further exploration of the accessibility of resources in relation to population, ideally a community that is large enough to have facilities but not so large that demand outweighs participation opportunities.
There seems to be a sweet spot of the ideal size and population density of a development area, with small to medium-sized communities perhaps offering enough quality coaches, resources, teams, structures and opponents, balanced with being compact enough to develop relationships/socialise into particular sports, allow for informal play on streets/green areas, get enough game time and not be overlooked in favour of a larger cohort of perhaps earlier maturing players. Understanding the unique social, political and cultural context is key with areas of a similar population size not necessarily having equivalent developmental environments (Baker et al., 2014; Wattie et al., 2018).
For those involved in the area of talent development, it is important to understand the environmental factors that impact on such development (along with the more regularly researched personal characteristics) as both have a key role in continued development. By exploring the unique context of your development area, you can begin to identify how to embed facilitative characteristics into your environments (e.g. the ingredients of such environments can include supportive social networks, accessible and engaging activities, a multitude of ‘play’ opportunities and a connection to the community and physical spaces).
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