Winning – First loser or Second winner?

After penning an article on Tuesday on the topic of winning with dignity, I stumbled across a thread that has been running on Facebook about losing. It essentially criticises an Australian network for asking one of their Olympians what went wrong after they had just won a silver medal.

It has provoked quite a wave of criticism towards the network with over 10,000 comments on the piece. To give you a flavour of some of the comments, many state that it is an achievement just to be there, how can anyone be deemed to have done badly when to be in a final they are world class, it’s unsportsmanlike to be disappointed if you don’t win gold, and what will children at school sports days think when they know silver is a disappointment.

It is an incredibly controversial topic, far more so than winning. Many will find that surprising but the rules for winning are fairly simple, win and be humble – good, win and be arrogant – bad, save for our penchant for the occasional ‘character’. It is why people always warm to Lionel Messi but can be more ambivalent towards Cristiano Ronaldo.

Losing is much less of an exact science. Losing is also something far closer to all of us, in any walk of life, be it sport, a promotion at work, anything – more people lose than win.

In essence the argument boils down to is silver the first loser or is silver second winner?

What troubles me is that all of the vitriol forgets the most important thing, what is the athlete capable of? It also forgets that the most important tool to any athlete is their work ethic, anyone who has read Matthew Syed’s excellent book, Bounce, will know that hard work is the key to success in any sporting field. If you are satisfied with being second you are going to be less likely to work harder than ever before to can that extra 1% to be first next time. Would Sir Alex Ferguson still be the Manchester United manager if he thought second was  something to be pleased with, would Jonny Wilkinson have gone out on Christmas morning to practice kicking if he was happy to be the second best kicker in the world?

Elite sport is about achievement, that is why we get excited when people break world records, it is why the whole of the UK celebrated on Saturday night when we won those historic 3 Gold medals in the Olympic stadium. Achievement is not an exact science though. Look at it like this, when Scotland narrowly beat England at rugby, everyone will praise Scotland and ask England what went wrong, yet when England beat Scotland narrowly people will still give Scotland praise for their good effort. Or to put it in more clear cut terms, if Usain Bolt had come second to Dwain Chambers (if he’d been in it) in the 100m final, Bolt would be deeply disappointed to put it lightly, but if Chambers had won silver in that final to Bolt’s Gold, Chambers would be praised to the hilt.

That is because for Chambers a silver medal in the Olympic final is in excess of what could be reasonably expected of him, while for Bolt an Olympic silver is a failure. Some still find this abhorrent but let me ask you this, if you knew you could do better, would you be happy with not doing your best?

The reality is that finishing second is not what needs to be analysed, what needs to be analysed is whether the individual has performed to their best or not. If the athlete has performed at or in excess of their best then second is an outstanding achievement. If however they have performed below their best then they will be, and have every right to be, disappointed by it.

It is why I was disappointed (and I’m sure I will draw a lot of criticism for this) by Rebecca Adlington’s interview after her 800m freestyle Bronze. She came out angry, almost lecturing the viewer that Bronze is nothing to be embarrassed about. She’s absolutely right, bronze is a fantastic achievement and nothing to be embarrassed about, there are not many others in the world with one. When you are the world record holder though and you perform below your best in the final, bronze is certainly something to be disappointed about.

The argument about the impact on attitudes towards winning and losing on children is in this writers view one that merits more thought.

Certainly it is hard to doubt that when we judge professional athletes by the size of their trophy cabinet, that children will not pick up on this and apply it to themselves. What is important then is that we educate properly. It is important to teach young children that when you are five or ten or even fifteen, it really isn’t the winning that is important. It is important though that this is said with honesty and integrity. Children are not stupid, they are able to make their own judgements and simply saying a well worn phrase such as ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ doesn’t wash.

Youngsters deserve better than that, and better than that is to tell them that it is not about winning or losing but that it is about giving your best and then working to be better. That is something that is not just a good lesson in sport but in life generally. Very very few athletes have ever been the best their whole life, at some point every one of them in any sport gets beaten, some give up, the rest work hard to never let it happen again. Those are the one’s who go on to become the Martin Johnson’s and the Richie McCaw’s of this world.

Most important though is to remember that elite sport and school sports day are not the same thing. Nobody would claim that Maths homework and Accountancy are the same thing and so we should not try to claim that elite and school sports are the same. Elite sport is emphatically about achievement, school sport is not, it is about exercise and learning about the values that sport can teach you – hard work, determination, teamwork, dedication and humility.

So to that all important question again, is silver first loser or second winner?

The answer; it depends entirely on the capability of the athlete and the competition they face.

Back to top