When it comes to sport in HKG, the term “Big Fish Small Pond” is often used to dismiss athletic achievement due to its small size and low level competition. In all fairness, few HKG athletes are truly competitive on a world level despite having world level funding, facilities, and opportunities.
People, therefore, think that in order to excel athletically, one must leave or never be competitive on a world level. This may be true once an athlete has reached a certain age and standard, and are being held back by their location. However, prior to that point, sticking to the small pond has its advantages and those who commit to it, and approach things the right way, prosper. Below are the reasons I believe training in HK up to University level and sometimes beyond, can be of great benefit to athletes aspiring to compete at an international level.
1. Relative deprivation - the way people judge themselves in relation to the competition and the opportunity of success. Basically, if an athlete is more competitive and gets good results, they are more likely to stay with the sport which gives them the opportunity to see what they can do long term. It also has a similar effect on parents, gaining their support due to competitive results.
2. Developmental speed - athletes develop at different rates. Often when athletes are in a less-competitive environment, they can reach full potential quicker with fewer risks of overreaching. Athletes who compete with large, competitive talent pools, can be at a major disadvantage; especially if they are late developers. One should not mistake this with not working hard or as being less committed. Instead, it is an opportunity for one to develop on their own time.
3. Facility and coach density - The density of the city provides athletes with a selection of high-level facilities, clubs, and programs nearby. As a result, there is considerable opportunity for an athlete to find a good coach and to train with a group of like-minded athletes. Additionally, because the talent pool is smaller, the athletes will receive more attention from a coach. Such is contrary to bigger pools of athletes who tend to receive very little attention and are more likely to be coached by somebody with fewer skills.
4. Funding and cost - for a city that doesn’t consider sport a priority, there is a high level of funding available to athletes. The results needed to access this funding are not overly challenging, and in some cases too easy. The longevity of an athletes career often depends on long term results and fulfilling their potential, which can only be achieved if they can afford to stay in the sport.
5. Multi sport focus - Generally, talented athletes are often good at several similar sports (e.g. triathlon and swimming or running). Environments like Hong Kong provide young athletes with a platform to partake in multi sports for longer periods of time before specialising in a specific sport, mainly because there is less pressure to do so. Athletes can excel in all of their chosen sports up to a certain level and realise the benefits to be had from the overlap.
6. Competitive mindset and toughness - These are key traits that must be learned to compete at an international level. Although it can be argued, this is taught in more competitive, overseas, environments, I would say they are better developed inline with an athletes fitness and skill level. As long as HKG based athletes are trained to be tough during training and racing, they will be ready for international competition when the time comes.
7. National Representation - Without a doubt, it is much easier to represent Hong Kong at an international level than it is in many other nations. Such can open a variety of doors to an athlete, including the opportunity to attend top-level schools and universities, and can also look impressive to future employers. Many HK athletes have attended Olympic games via more accessible qualification routes.
From my experience, many athletes have and will keep benefiting from the “Small Pond” environment in Hong Kong. If they had moved overseas, there is a good chance they wouldn’t have pursued their sport to the level they are at and would not have realised their potential. As an athlete, it’s important to take advantage where you can and work toward long term results. For the majority of people its more likely they will reach their full potential and have a positive impact on their career. However, it is not all plain sailing and there are still many barriers to training and competing in and for Hong Kong. For example, if national federations and head coaches do not do their part in being fair and transparent, it is pointless even being involved in competitive sport at all. With an inkling of hope i’d say things are slowly getting better on this front.