My middle child was one of the top two players on his rep/club team. He had a season full of ups and downs, but he was a starter they relied on to score and help the team win—and there is no doubt he loved it.
His school team is a Grade 4-5-6 team. Of the 10 players, eight were in Grade 6 and had all played on the same rep team, Jeremy was the only Grade-5 kid, and the final player was a Grade-4 who had also been Jeremy’s teammate on his rep team.
They went from being the best kids on their rep team to the youngest kids on their school team. In the area finals they had games where they barely played and some where they got no minutes at all. His team won that tournament and so the team got the chance to move on to the regional finals. But it was not an easy car ride home. Jeremy had his ribbon, but he also had a lot of frustration and confusion. And a lot of tears.
It was hard to listen to him crying, but I knew better than to talk. Only after dinner, a shower, and a bedtime cuddle did I engage him in a conversation. We were lying in his bed and I had him hold his hand against my own to see how much he was growing. Then I asked him if he wanted me to tell him about the little fish/big fish cycle that I teach my staff at camp because I thought it would help him. He said yes, so this is what I told him.
The Little Fish/Big Fish Cycle
I told him that basketball players are like fish. There are big fish and little fish. The big fish are the strongest and most talented and the little fish are smaller and weaker. I told him that throughout our basketball careers we are constantly cycling, going from being the little fish to the big fish. I asked him if he thought he was the big fish on his rep team or the little fish. He smiled and answered quickly and said he was the BIG fish! Then I asked him if he was the big or little fish on his school team. He became sad and said he was the little fish. I asked him why he thought he was the little fish. The smart little man listed things like I am younger, they are bigger, and they’ve all play on the same team together. I nodded and told him he was correct.
I then asked him if he liked being the little fish. He said no in a tone that was clearly meant to insinuate that I was crazy. I smiled and asked him whose job it was to become the big fish, and he said his own. I asked him how he could do it, and he said practice a lot and grow taller.
I explained to him that as he grows older he will cycle through working hard when he is the little fish to become the big fish and then each time he makes a better or older team he will have to cycle through again. I also told him that basketball is not the only place that the cycle happens.
The Life Lesson Learned
It can happen in school and at work as well. Any time you start a new team or a new job you are always the little fish until you work hard enough to prove your talent and contribute enough to become the big fish. I told him that the players and workers who understand that know that they need to constantly work harder and harder so they can be the big fish.
As I saw him getting sleepy, I reminded him of how he felt being the big fish on the rep team, He smiled then, and I reminded him that it was up to him to keep working hard so that he could have that feeling at school next year. And I reminded him that the big fish should always be nice to the little fish.
He soon fell asleep, happier than he had been since the game. I kissed his forward and just sat and looked him for a while. He looked so peaceful it was hard to believe he had shed so many tears just hours before. I knew that now he understood the little fish/big fish cycle, and I guessed that’s what calmed him down. I knew that he had learned a lesson that he would be able to carry with him, a lesson that would serve him well in the future.
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Stephanie uses easy-to-understand principles—simple, relevant, practical solutions for dealing with mediocrity at work, at home and on the athletic field—without quick fix schemes.