A Small World View

Curacao is a beautiful Caribbean island with a population of about 140,000, extremely limited resources, and some of the best Little League Baseball players in the world. They qualified for the Little League World Series every year from 2001-2009, winning the title in 2004, and taking second in 2005. Eleven players from Curacao have gone on to play Major League ball. Curacao is a baseball phenomenon.* To put this in perspective: 180,000 teams from 90 countries compete in Little League baseball. That’s more teams than Curacao has people.

There are many things that contribute to Curacao’s success: highly motivated athletes, supportive families, dedicated coaches, and a national love of the sport. Those same factors are, of course, found in cities all over the US (not to mention Latin America, Japan, etc.) that don’t have nearly the level of success that Curacao has, in spite of often having far better funding. So what makes Curacao different?

Curacao has an asset that many of its competitors will never be able to emulate: it’s tiny.

When, in the opening game of the 1996 Major League World Series, Atlanta Braves rookie outfielder Arndruw Jones hit back-to-back homeruns, the entire island of Curacao wasn’t just watching their countryman succeed, they were cheering on their neighbor–someone whom they knew, whose house they could point out, and whose family they saw regularly. (It is Jones’ breakout success in ’96 that Dan Coyle, in his book The Talent Code, credits with causing an explosion of passion for baseball that precipitated Curacao’s rise to Little League prominence 5 years later.)

Because of Curacao’s tiny size, the children there don’t just idolize their heroes, they identify with them. They see their heroes’ lives–particularly their early lives–as a parallel of their own. They don’t just say, “I want to be like him when I grow up”; they say, “I believe I can be like him when I grow up.” This, like dominoes falling, causes more and more success. Kids who watched Jones at the World Series eventually qualified for the Little League World Series. They then came back and helped the next group of kids below them who now had a larger group of successful athletes with whom they could identify. Every new success creates several more. Suddenly, a country that had produced only four Major League players in the entire 20th Century, has added seven more since just 2000.

The same process can be seen in US fencing. As recently as the 1990s, it was universally accepted amongst Americans that the US could never compete with Europeans in fencing. There weren’t enough fencers or money or good coaches or time or whatever. Then, in 1995, Iris Zimmerman won the under-17 World Championships in women’s foil. This was almost immediately followed by stronger and stronger results for US fencers, leading to the incredible dominance of US women in sabre. Mariel Zagunis winning Olympic Gold and Sada Jacobson Bonze in 2004 led to the US picking up 6 Olympic medals and having the second highest medal count of any country in Beijing in 2008.

Although the US is a large country, the American fencing world is extremely small. It is fairly easy to meet, get to know, and compete against the top fencers. As a result, a single individual achieving something great impacts everyone. It changes the culture. The kids who are learning to fence in the US today are a lot like the kids learning baseball in Curacao. They don’t lament US fencing weakness. They believe–they know–that they can compete with anyone in the world. They knowthey can win Olympic medals.

A similar effect often appears in small fencing clubs. One strong fencer suddenly leads to a wave of strong fencers a few years later. The training may not have changed, but the perceptions of the athletes have.

There are, perhaps, two extremely important lessons from this. First, smaller is often better–the beliefs of the athletes are far more important than the number of athletes. Secondly–and maybe most importantly–take your heroes off their pedestals. After all, if you’ve put them up too high, how will you ever reach them?

*The documentary film Boys of Summer follows the team during its 2008 season and is certainly worth adding to your Netflix queue.