Parents, grab your snorkels and flippers. We are going for a swim in this month’s post as we explore the proverbial big fish in a small pond (and vice versa) of athletic experience. The truth is, even the biggest fish in the smallest ponds may face the prospect of becoming a small fish in a big pond, as they transition to higher levels of competition. This includes moving to more competitive teams, playing up in their own league, and transitioning to high school or college. The benefits of being a big fish become the problem areas when a star athlete moves up to a more difficult situation. This transition can be challenging, but with the right mindset and strategies, young athletes can survive and thrive in unfamiliar and highly competitive waters. If you are a parent of any sized fish in any sized pond, keep reading. What’s coming is helpful for you and your athlete, too.
A big fish receives extra attention and recognition within their team, community, and sports organization. This often starts early with kids who are bigger, more coordinated, and have a better understanding of the game. They get more attention, and they develop quickly. They are celebrated as a star player and are often the team leader. The extra attention in practice and competition socially boosts the big fish’s self-confidence. Recognition boosts their belief in their abilities, and they develop faster and perform better. Their statistics and achievements are impressive compared to their peers, they set records, win awards, and are honored for their achievements. It feels great while it’s happening, but these things can become a shaky foundation to their identity if accolades contribute to the athlete’s sense of self-worth. An athlete who is used to feeling important might have the rug pulled out from under them with the loss of preferential treatment and attention. Affirmation and recognition disappear, and this is hard for some kids to manage. If achievement and praise equal value, what happens if they dry up? Not only are they not getting the attention they’re used to, but all the attention is going to someone else.
A drawback for the big fish in a small pond is that they don’t face the same level of competition as they would in more challenging settings. This can lead to a plateau in their skill development because there are fewer opportunities to learn from peers who are more skilled or experienced in the sport. Without strong competition pushing them to improve, the athlete may become complacent and not reach their full potential. They might not even know this is happening, thinking their dominance in a smaller pond is all the ability they have or need. The extra pressure transitioning to a bigger pond equals increased competition, more stress, and higher expectations. This can trigger self-doubt and avoidance of challenges the athlete isn’t used to having to manage.
Negotiating the Waters - Big Fish in Any Pond:
For big fish athletes transitioning to a larger pond, or athletes who aren’t considered the big fish in the first place, there is a way to develop that doesn’t have to do with the level of attention received, the size of the pond, or the athlete’s place in it. Rather than comparing oneself to bigger, faster, and more skilled counterparts, all athletes should prioritize improvement based on their own developmental goals. They don’t need to master the pond, only their own potential. This includes focusing the athlete’s attention on refining technique and building consistency, not on comparing how they stack up against the other fish. They learn to approach the challenges of the bigger pond as a tool for development, rather than be discouraged by them. By focusing on individual growth rather than external comparisons, every fish becomes a better athlete in any environment. If they are better than yesterday, last week, and last season, they are on track.
It's a Process
Don’t get caught up in reacting to the differences in ability, recognition, and attention in a bigger pond. Remember that development means building skills, strength, and conditioning, and ensuring that the athlete's potential is maximized over time. Your athlete is unique, so help tailor a development play to their specific needs and strengths, optimizing it according to their current abilities, areas needing improvement, and potential. This structured path guides training and development in a practical sequence. The plan comprises specific, measurable, and achievable goals that allow young athletes to have clear targets to work towards. This provides motivation, measurable progress, and a sense of accomplishment when they reach their goals. Goal setting is an important part of athletic development, but as a mental skills coach, I see it is often unknowingly left incomplete. Here is a quick primer to help understand the goals of a development plan for your fish.
There are three types of goals necessary in shaping an athlete's journey. They are:
- Outcome goals: These focus on results or overall achievement. These are things like winning a championship or “Doing better this year.” While they provide some motivation and a sense of purpose, they aren’t in an athlete's control in the present.
- Process goals: These are the bread and butter of development. They emphasize the steps and strategies needed to reach the outcome goal. They clearly define daily training routines, skill development, and direction. They help an athlete, and parents know what today calls for in training and a way to measure progress. They provide a course through the big pond so an athlete can continue to develop against their own performance plan, not by comparison to others.
- Performance goals: These focus on improvement on a task relative to the athlete’s own standards. They zero in on specific, measurable benchmarks within an athlete's control, like improving shooting accuracy or running a personal best time. These goals allow young athletes to monitor their progress more directly, boost confidence, and serve as building blocks toward achieving both outcome and process goals.
I hope through this blog, you discovered that it's not about the size of the pond, but rather how it is navigated. It’s not about the size of the fish either. All progress is measured against the performance plan, not how the athlete measures up with other fish. Following a plan takes emotionality out of assessing performance. It also provides real-time feedback. The plan was met, or it wasn’t. It provided the expected results, or it didn’t. These things can be fixed right then and there. It is likely that every athlete will wind up in an environment that is beyond what they are used to. For continued development over time, athletes can chart their course with purpose and direction, ensuring that they're always advancing toward their own definition of success. In any environment, tending to the process day in and day out is where growth happens, where skills are honed, and where resilience is built. The pond may be massive, and there may be much bigger fish, but focusing on continuous self-improvement rather than comparison to other athletes maintains mental and emotional well-being and supports progress. This is an athlete’s best bet to achieve their potential. So, for any fish in any pond, the waters are yours to conquer, through personal growth. If you and your athlete need help sorting this out, look me up using the info at the bottom of this post. I’d love to help!
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I’m Dr. J. I am a mental performance coach and founder of Mind Right Sports Psychology. I work with athletes and their systems, building the mental processes that drive high performance. This includes individuals, parents, teams, and organizations, from beginners to pros. No matter what level of sport, mental skills training enables an athlete to perform at the upper levels of their ability consistently. If you would like a consultation or to jump right into mental skills training for your athlete, reach out!