Myth: Second Place is Just the First Place Loser

by Mary Russell, M.S.

The London 2012 Olympic Games is underway thus signaling the masses to assemble at their televisions for two weeks to watch the finest athletes in the world come compete to see who is the “best of the best.”

And so that is what I did last Saturday night. I sat on my couch and watched as Michael Phelps and Ryan Locte represented the United States in the men’s 400-meter individual medley. Commentators were all a buzz – would Michael Phelps continue to live up to his past standard of world record breaking swimming? Indeed, prior to this race, he had won 16 medals which accounted for one medal at every single Olympic race he had competed in since he was 15 years old.

As you may know by now, Phelps was unable to live up to his personal standards and, so it would seem, the world’s standards. Phelps placed 4th in the race, thus failing to place in the top 3 and earn medal.

Here are some of the phrases that sports commentators, fans, and Phelps himself used to describe his performance: “disastrous,” “failure,” “crippling disappointment,” “dismal performance,” “starting off on a bad note.”

Now, I’m no swimming expert but if you asked me, placing 4th in the WORLD in the OLYMPICS hardly seems like the job of a failure to me – but I guess that’s just how I think of it and I guess that’s precisely my point. We too easily tend to put ourselves and others down when we fail to be #1. In this way, we globally rate ourselves by saying if I’m not the best, I’m a failure or a total disappointment. Viewing only one person as a success, renders all others as failures. This type of thinking will inevitably lead us down a path of depression and shame.

Perhaps a more helpful way of thinking is to remind ourselves what a total failure is – someone who fails at everything, all the time. Certainly, Phelps not placing in 1 out of 17 Olympic races does not earn him the title of a total failure. Rather, though it’s unfortunate that Phelps couldn’t maintain his winning streak, he did manage to qualify for the Olympics, place in the top 5 in the WORLD, and permits someone else to have a chance at earning a gold medal. Thinking in this way, Phelps, his fans, and anyone else who tends to globally evaluate themselves or others need no longer be victims of shame and depression…rather, they may feel regret and sadness for the past, but also hopeful and excited for future possibilities.

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