Rafael Van Der Vaart: the Big Fish Little Pond Effect


Rafael Van der Vaart and the Big Fish Little Pond Effect - Image Courtesy of Gregory Rodriguez Bott

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Taken sociologically, the Big Fish Little Pond Effect (BFLPE) predicts that:

Equally able students have lower academic self-concepts when attending schools where the average ability levels of classmates is high, and higher academic self-concepts when attending schools where the school-average ability is low. (Marsh, 2005)

Replace the term academia with the self-concept of football ability and we can then, maybe, apply this to the career, thus far, of Rafael van der Vaart. As a youth player, the boy was drooled over; his self-concept rode a wave of Ajax Talent of the Year accolades and superfluous praise from gooey-eyed rival coaches. Captain of Ajax at 21, his performances belied his age, as did his status.

As van der Vaart progressed, both his own self-concept, and Ajax’s self-concept rose; the current crop of academy graduates were progressively attaining a higher self-concept, (leading them towards the Domestic double – 2001/02) whilst competing against players, generally, with less ability. As Marsh (2005) notes, if you feel you are the best, then you will perform much better in your particular field of participation.

From Ajax, van der Vaart caught a cheap, no-thrills flight to Bremen, and then a train to Hamburg (it’s the cheapest route). Liking the look of the Reeperbahn, although not mid-week, he signed on the dotted line (only after removing a clause that he must get a perm like HSV idol, Kevin Keegan).

At Hamburg, once more, Rafael flourished – we’re on first name terms now. After finishing top scorer in his first season, Doll bestowed on him the club captaincy: presumably by asking him to get down on bended knee in some sort of Hanseatic ceremony. Upon arrival, Rafael was perceived as above average for Die Bundesliga, but what elevated him to his big fish little pond status was the trust and praise he received from Doll and HSV fans alike. It could be argued that the absence of the aforementioned elements is what lowered his self-concept whilst at Real Madrid.

Life at Los Merengues is obstinate at best, often perplexing, and perpetually tumultuous; but it represents for many the zenith of football, a club of overwhelming pedigree, dwarfing the European achievements of both Ajax, although not by much, and Hamburg. Here, and only here, could Rafael blossom into a genuinely World Class player. Alas, it was not to be, and here is where the BFLPE is most apparent, where comparisons can be drawn with his stints at clubs in, widely considered to be, lesser leagues.

Marsh’s (2005) comment that ‘students have lower academic self-concepts when attending schools where the average ability levels of classmates is high,’ is most applicable in this instance. No longer was Rafael playing with sparsely scattered quality, now he was in a squad of players, widely held to be amongst the best in the world. This, especially for Rafael, garnered queries, previously unvisited, about his self-concept i.e. his ability to play football.

It would be doltish to suggest van der Vaart was a complete failure, he wasn’t. The case in point is that, in application of the BFLPE to his time at Los Blancos, it is clear how in an above-average-environment, Rafael did not excel to the same extent as at previous clubs. Circumstances, of course, are very much dictatorial; the manager who purchased him was soon replaced, and he never seemed to gain the absolute confidence of his successors, and with so many Galácticos to admire, he was never truly a darling of the Santiago Bernabéu. His self-concept a.k.a. self-perception must have been hindered because of this (of course though, this could only be empirically proved through discussion with Rafael).

From The Whites to The Lilywhites, van der Vaart soon found him self at NI7 0AP, having failed to sufficiently impress the Madrid-Machine. Thus far he’s been impressive, performing with great aplomb – perhaps due to the BFLPE. Redknapp considers him one of those rare species, a “terrific player,” whilst the fans eulogise him also as, terrific.

Perhaps now that he finds himself as above average, despite Spurs having a very good team, we will see the Van der Vaart of old, turning out performances such as this…

…Redknapp certainly hopes so.

by Paul Gleeson

view more of Paul’s work at ‘these are utopias who never happen


Marsh, H.W. (2005) Big Fish Little Pond Effect on Academic Self-concept: Cross-cultural and Cross-Disciplinary Generalizability [online]. N/A. Available from: http://www.aare.edu.au/05pap/mar05389.pdf. [Accessed 21 October 2010]

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One Response to Rafael Van Der Vaart: the Big Fish Little Pond Effect

  1. Pingback: The Champions League last 16 « upper90magazine

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