Brotherly love? What the Harbaughs teach us about sibling rivalry

This combo image made of Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, photos shows San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, left, in Atlanta, and Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh in Foxborough, Mass., during their NFL football conference championship games. Get ready for the Brother Bowl_ it'll be Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh when Big Bro John's Baltimore Ravens (13-6) play Little Bro Jim's San Francisco 49ers (13-4-1) in the Super Bowl at New Orleans in two weeks. (AP Photos/Mark Humphrey, Matt Slocum)

Sunday’s big game between the Ravens and 49ers has dozens of subplots, but not even the final game in the Hall of Fame career of Ray Lewis looms larger than the “Har-Bowl”—the coaching matchup between the Harbaugh brothers, John of the Ravens and Jim of the 49ers.

From Peyton and Eli Manning on the gridiron, Joe and Dom DiMaggio on the diamond, and Venus and Serena Williams on the tennis court, sibling rivalry is as old as the games themselves. Locally, Luke and Brayden Schenn are enjoying their first season as teammates on the Flyers. But according to Joel H. Fish, Ph.D., the attitudes and approaches of parents are the primary factors in creating healthy competition within the same household.

“When you talk about the Harbaughs—they’re only 15 months apart in age,” says Dr. Fish, director of The Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia. “That makes a difference.”

Dr. Fish says he routinely begins presentations by asking attendees to recall their earliest competitive memory. Odds are both of the Harbaugh brothers’—or any set of siblings so close in age—first memories include the other sibling.

“Typically, those memories—half of them are positive and the other half not so positive,” Dr. Fish confirms. “I use that to get people thinking about those early memories. My assumption is John and Jim Harbaugh played checkers, ran races and played football against each other. The seeds of their attitudes towards this Sunday’s game were planted many, many years ago.”

Dr. Fish says he marvels at the mutual respect between the Harbaugh brothers, the Williams sisters and other sets of elite sports siblings. While some siblings can’t play a game of one-on-one in the driveway without coming to blows, John and Jim Harbaugh will ‘fight it out’ Sunday on the biggest stage in sports—but only in the figurative sense.

“From the first time they’ve picked up a ball, those two have pushed each other to their limits with the understanding of ‘may the best man win’,” Dr. Fish says. “That’s healthy competition. Battle it out, play by the rules, then shake hands and go back to being brothers.”

It’s up to each set of parents to create that environment where competition is fierce but healthy. “Making each sibling understand they have talents in particular areas, encouraging them to use those talents to push one another and make each other better—that’s the key.”

Whether it’s the Harbaughs or your own family, the last part of that lesson is the most crucial. Parents need to impart that “at the end of the day, I respect each of you and your unique talents equally—win or lose,” Dr. Fish emphasizes. “Whether those talents are in art, music, or on the football field—when parents create that environment of unconditional love and the idea of family trumping competition, siblings are able to shake hands and go back to being brothers or sisters.”

But what about the 99 percent of families who are not like the Harbaughs or the Mannings? What about the countless families where one sibling clearly outshines another on the field of competition? “Again, it comes back to the parents,” says Dr. Fish. “You teach the older, or more talented sibling to win graciously while teaching the younger one how to lose with dignity. Again, it doesn’t impact the family dynamic whether you win or lose the race—teach both siblings ‘I will treat you both equally, no matter what.’

Whether you’re raising two competitive, football-playing brothers, or 7-8 siblings with diverse, wide-ranging talents, emphasizing the development of each individual is the key. “Again, we’re going to treat everybody equally, no matter who runs faster, who gets a higher math grade,” Dr. Fish reiterates. “This leads to children developing appreciation for their own special talents as part of their identity.”

So while few families will see their children’s values tested on a stage like the one the Harbaugh brothers share this Sunday, it’s safe to say that John and Jim’s heartfelt post-game handshake should be the envy of millions of sports parents.

Joel H. Fish, Ph.D. is a father of three and has worked in sport psychology for over 20 years. His book, ‘101 Ways to be a Terrific Sports Parent’, offers many other tips and anecdotes on sibling rivalry in sports.

Got a ‘sibling rivalry’ story of your own? Share it in our comments section.