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As soon as he was born, Erling Haaland entered into Norwegian sporting royalty. His father, Alfie, was one of Norway’s most famous modern footballers. His mother, Gry Marita, was a national heptathlon champion. And so while there was nothing preordained about Haaland’s rise, he was a winner in the genetic lottery.
To go with the luck in his parents, the newborn Erling was endowed with another advantage: being the youngest born of three siblings, after his brother Astor and sister Gabrielle. Having older siblings is a significant statistical advantage for aspiring athletes, as explored in my book The Best. Essentially, playing with older brothers and siblings is more challenging, forcing younger children to acquire skills at an accelerated rate. The young Erling used to play football with Astor and Gabrielle.
Yet Erling’s early sporting interests were not confined to football alone. Growing evidence attests to the benefits of a multisport sporting childhood: children who specialise in a sport earlier are more likely to suffer injury and burnout. Playing a range of sports can also a child’s movement and motor development. A study of UK gold medal winners showed that, compared with promising young athletes who did not progress to the top, the elite athletes tended to play more other sports as children and specialise later.
Haaland’s childhood, like Emma Raducanu’s, is a flag-bearer for a multisport upbringing. He moved to Bryne, a town of 12,000 on the Norwegian southwest coast, aged three. Small, safe and easy to get around - yet big enough that there were always ample children to play with - the town was ideal for Haaland to sample a range of sports.
“I don't remember when I started playing handball - I think I was eight or nine,” Erling has recalled. “I was also doing track and field when I was young. And I also played a little golf. So I did a lot of things." And very well: Haaland still holds the world record for a standing long jump by a five-year-old, set in January 2006 at 163cm, and was later told that he could have a career in professional handball. Erling played handball, athletics and cross-country skiing regularly until he was 14.
What a ride! Thank you, Erling! 👏 pic.twitter.com/uXcRiGBGDh
— Borussia Dortmund (@BlackYellow) May 14, 2022
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell shows how Bill Gates was uniquely lucky in his timing: aged 13, his school got access to a mainframe computer, making him among the first young people to do so. Gladwell demonstrates that a striking number of software tycoons were born within three years in the mid-1950s, meaning they were at university just as computing was taking off.
There is a hint of similar serendipity in Haaland’s tale. In 2005, when he turned five, Bryne FK built a grass-covered indoor soccer pitch that was always open during the weekends. Before, children had not been able to train during the freezing cold winters; now, they could, meaning that Haaland could play much more than had he been born a few years earlier. Several of his teammates as children have also become professionals: it was, Haaland said, a "special environment”.
Most indoor games were casual pick-up matches with friends, without any coaches watching: the sort of informal play that - as in the Parisian banlieues or in south London - develops players’ creativity and ability to think for themselves. A study comparing Germany’s 2014 World Cup winners with less successful German professional players found that the World Cup winners had played less formal football as children and had played significantly more unstructured football in their teens.
Haaland was also supported by adroit coaching. Aged eight, Erling was moved up a year at Bryne FK, exposing him to tougher competition. In keeping with the enlightened attitude to youth sports in Norway, Erling did not play an 11-a-side match until he was 12, instead playing in smaller-sided games that give children more opportunities with the ball.
Erling’s rate of growth perhaps worked in his favour too. Seeing the 6ft 4in behemoth today, it is curious to recall that Haaland only had a growth spurt near to his 15th birthday.
The timing was perfect. It meant that, when he was smaller, Haaland had to develop a more rounded game, rather than bully smaller players. When he grew, he kept all the skills he had developed, but now added physicality. “It was maybe a good thing for him to be smaller,” Alf Ingve Berntsen, a coach at Bryne FK, has said, "because when he was 11, 12, 13, he had to be clever in the box, he had to be smart to create chances”.
Haaland’s father was not a pushy parent. “Alfie was very hands-off with the coaching,” Berntsen has recalled. “There was no pressure, not even once in all our years, to do certain things or to work Erling in a certain way.” A study by sports psychologist Dave Collins found that the parents of future elite athletes tended to be less consumed by their children’s careers than those of ‘almosts’, who would often complain to coaches and try and remove all obstacles from their children’s way.
Rather than forcing his dreams upon his son, Alfie allowed Erling to chart his own path, and develop ownership over his career. “I always said to myself I want to become a professional football player at a high level,” Erling said in 2020. “To try to get better than him is also a goal. I had a lot of role models, but my father is maybe the biggest one."
Add it all together, and “you could not imagine a more conducive environment to develop a professional player,” says Professor Mark Williams. “It’s the optimum mix between great genes and early immersion in the sport, with significant formal and informal.” Haaland then built on this brilliant start by working indefatigably on and off the pitch - modeling his diet on Cristiano Ronald’s. With the help of his father, he made astute decisions about which club to move to and when to make the most of his singular talent.
Nature or nurture? In Haaland's case, it is a cocktail of both.