I grew up in a small town where, as long as you were more coordinated than a baby giraffe, you became a star athlete. The competition in my little Ohio town was mild and the pressure nonexistent, so kids were able to excel, and at more than just one sport.
I made every team I ever tried out for: soccer, cheerleading, volleyball, T-ball (my crowning achievement), swim team. I was constantly scoring goals, winning games, receiving awards and being recognized for my “amazing” ability. All of this positive reinforcement left me convinced that I was the best thing on earth. My hometown is very much an athletic “small pond,” where I got to be a humongous fish and I absolutely think that this is what shaped me into the person I am today.
My athletic success is what led me to decide in 8th grade I was going to be my high school class’ valedictorian, and what convinced me I could do it. It’s why I applied to nine out-of-state colleges and expected to get into every single one of them. It’s why I tried out for the varsity cheerleading squad at my college two weeks after arriving. And it’s why I walked into every job interview assuming I already had the job. Getting to be the star of everything gave me the confidence and motivation I needed to be able to excel in everything, even outside of sports.
I have since come to realize, to my horror, that I am not a sports superstar. I like to think I can avoid making a fool out of myself in most sports (except golf – a baby giraffe would be much more comfortable with a golf club than I am), but I am far from the world-class athlete my accomplishments make me out to be. I know many people with much more raw talent than I have, but they weren’t named MVP of their varsity soccer team, and their 8th grade volleyball team didn’t win the league championship. So even though they were outstanding athletes, they still had to play JV because there were so many other outstanding athletes competing against them for a limited number of spots. They were constantly forced to ask themselves “why aren’t I good enough?”and “how can I be better than the other guy?”
Due to my circumstances, I never had to ask myself these questions. The success I was fortunate to have growing up, success that was largely a product of my small pond surroundings, instilled in me a lasting confidence that extends beyond sports and into the rest of my life. Even though my sports career may be over, and no matter the setbacks (like not getting into all those colleges, or getting every job I interviewed), I still believe I can do and be anything I want.
There are plenty of disadvantages of growing up in a small town. I didn’t see the ocean until I was 18 years old, and my appreciation for the arts other than what you see at the Preble County Pork Festival is lacking. But being a big fish convinced me I never had to settle for “average” performance or being second-best, in sports or in life, so I refuse to settle now even though I’m swimming in a much bigger pond.
Logically, it seems like you need more than just confidence to succeed in life. I can agree with that, to a certain extent. But there are so many examples from my hometown of people who seem to have very little going for them succeeding in sports and going on to do way more than what would ever have been expected of them. When I check in on the star athletes from my high school, I don’t find them balding and at the bar going on about that one great game back in their heyday. I see lawyers and businessmen working for top companies in big cities. I see doctors and soldiers sacrificing themselves for others. Mostly, I see people who left the small pond to do big things with their lives, confident that they could succeed. And now that I’m looking, many of the people I see left behind are those who had a lot of potential but quit too early or got caught up in less-than-beneficial things.
No one argues with the benefits of playing a sport or being part of team. And of course, if your dreams are to be drafted into the NBA, you’re going to have to play with the best. For the rest of us who just want to make a good life for ourselves, confidence is a huge part of the game, and the confidence that comes from athletic success, regardless of the competition, is one that sticks with you. Nowhere is that athletic success more attainable than in a tiny pond like mine in Ohio. My experience and those of so many others show me not just the effect athletic success can have on a person, but also the amazing things a small pond can do for a big fish.