Big Fish – Little Pond Effect

Is  it better to be a big fish in a little pond or a little fish in a big pond? Said differently, is it better for your son to be the star of a “AA” team or a sub on a Majors team? I’ve heard parents say they would rather their kid be the bat boy on the elite team than the starting shortstop on an average team. I touched on this topic briefly in Oh No! It’s That Time of the Year but I have been experiencing some mixed feelings about the issue.

Self-Concept In my constant uneasiness with highly competitive youth baseball – in my case 10U Majors – I’ve been exploring the question of how much effect playing on a team with mixed ability levels has on individual player development. To be more specific, how important is it for the most advanced kids to be playing with other highly advanced kids? Conventional wisdom seems to suggest having an athlete play on a team with less talented kids will inhibit their development. Using that logic, one could argue that it is far better to have your kid play on a team with athletes that are better than him to stretch his ability.

In his book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell addresses the idea known as the “Big Fish – Little Pond Effect.” At the heart of the idea is the concept that we tend to judge our own abilities only by comparison to others closest to us, and those comparisons to a small group of people in our immediate surroundings shape our self-concept. Gladwell asserts that if we are in a class of extremely bright people who consistently outperform us, then our perception of our own IQ is diminished. It’s the idea that the smarter your peer group is, the dumber you feel.11825583_10153501289695040_7830198420789084460_n

Big Fish – Little Pond Effect is formally known as “relative deprivation,” a term first popularized by sociologist Samuel Stouffer during World War II. Stouffer argued that human beings tend to compare success and failure to their immediate surroundings only, thereby depriving themselves of rational placement of themselves in a larger picture. The individual’s perception is informed less by objective measures than by subjective ones.

The importance of this is that our self-perception will have a significant impact on achievement because relative deprivation seems to impede grit. Grit is huge. Take six minutes and listen to Angela Duckworth explain what grit is and why it’s so important. It is hard to overstate the importance of grit. Grit may be a greater predictor of success than IQ and talent. Gladwell did not use the word grit but states:

“How you feel about your abilities – your academic ‘self-concept’ – in the context of your classroom shapes your willingness to tackle challenges and finish difficult tasks. It’s a crucial element in your motivation and confidence.”

That statement concerned me. Gladwell is making the case that feelings matter, no matter how irrational or absurd they may be. In the book, Gladwell tells the story of Caroline Sacks. She was perhaps among the top 1% of all students worldwide taking organic chemistry. However, she happened to be taking organic chemistry in one of the most competitive and academically rigorous universities on planet earth; thus, when she struggled, she felt stupid and ultimately quit.

“The smarter your peers, the dumber you feel; the dumber you feel, the more likely you are to drop out of science.”

Does this apply to baseball? Is it true that the better your kid’s teammates, the more inadequate he feels, and the more likely he is to quit baseball before high school?

At the risk of being labeled a heretic, let me circle back to where I started. I think it’s better to be the star of a “AA” team than the 11th man on the elite Majors team. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Does relative deprivation apply to competitive youth sports?

Check out Malcolm Gladwell’s engaging talk on “Big Fish – Little Pond Effect”.




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