Sunday, March 11, 2012

How do small towns produce so many pro athletes?

I’m sure you’ve seen Friday Night Lights. Or perhaps you’ve watched Hoosiers or Varsity Blues or any of the other hordes of small-town sports movies that showcase the standard formula—a group of high school kids with nothing else to do band together to overcome long odds to succeed. It’s as if the mythos of the small town somehow breeds magic and success into the blood and bones of the young athletes

The myth-and-fact farrago of these movies—emblazoned in our minds by pop culture—might be more science and sociology than we think. Sport psychologist Jean Côté co-authored studies that use statistics to show that small towns are producing more top-tier athletes than cities—a lot more. In an article by the Wall Street Journal, writer Austin Kelley uses NFL quarterback Jason Campbell (Oakland Raiders) as an example of how growing up in small-town Taylorsville, Mississippi, (pop: 1,341) can be a positive reinforcement to young athletes, a contrast to big-city sports that Côté says is “overorganized and overcoached.”

Also of note is the NFL-famous town of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania (Pop: 11,734), that has churned out the likes of “Iron” Mike Ditka, Sean Gilbert, Tony Dorsett, and Ty Law. In 2007, Aliquippa added two more names to the NFL—Derrelle Revis (Aliquippa High/Pitt) and Paul Posluszny (Hopewell HS/Penn State).

The stats are there: although only 25% of our citizens come from small towns, a whopping 50% of the NFL’s ranks are born and raised in cities under a population of 50,000. The same can be said of 45% of the PGA’s golfers. Also of note are the athletes from the NHL (39%), MLB (38%), and NBA (28%). The argument seems to be that young athletes that have a chance to build their confidence—in an environment where the opposition might be somewhat relaxed—might have an advantage over big-city kids who are primed and prepped from a very young age to be a cog in the pro sports machine. Quite often the small-town athletes play several different sports; Aliquippa’s Revis and Posluzny competed in high school basketball against each other since they belonged to rival schools.

The argument, however, isn’t necessarily confined to the great American Midwest or the dusty towns of West Texas. CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a feature on “Football Island”—aka American Samoa—where a population of 65,000 has more than 30 players in the NFL, and more than 200 in Division I college football.* 60 Minutes producer Scott Pelley noted that in the last five years the six high schools on the island have produced 10 NFL linemen, and that a child born to Samoan parents is 56 times more likely to get into the NFL than any kid in America.

But how much of this is truly psychological and/or sociological? In American Samoa’s case, there is little debate that genetics plays a significant role—especially when Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu is standing over you. But Côté, co-editor of the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, cites a number of factors that lead to “little town” success, some of which were reported in the WSJ. Among the factors cited were, “The accessibility of sports role models in little towns, the cultural values placed on sport, and even the ‘big fish little pond’ effect, which can be a positive reinforcement for young athletes.”

Côté refutes the prevailing notion that children do not need to find a specialized niche early in their sporting careers. They are successful because they do not spend all of their free time learning specialized skill sets.

Pelley reported that, aside from biology, Samoans seem to try hard to overcome their socioeconomic status—their nation is extremely poor. He also reports that the lives of young men are immersed in football culture. If we follow the logic of socioeconomic status and background, we start venturing into Hoop Dreams territory—city boys spend every waking hour trying to get into schools that breathe basketball skills and fine coaching, just so they can get a shot at the pros or a college scholarship.

Wherever the data leads, there is definitely some science in the numbers of small-town athletes. But I think we like to think there’s a lot of magic, too. At least that’s what the movies tell us.

*To be fair, many of them are of Samoan descent, and reside in the mainland United States, Hawaii, and elsewhere.

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