WHEN YOU DON’T FINISH FIRST

“I, am, number one…’cause two is not a winner and three nobody remembers…”

-Nelly, lyrics from #1

When my younger daughter ran track in high school, at times we traveled to other cities for her to compete.   On one of these trips, just as we drove into the parking lot at the track, she pulled a CD out of her equipment bag, put it in the player and cranked up the volume on the then popular Nelly song, “#1.”  As the beat boomed, I had the belief that I myself could  blast out of the starting blocks and sprint around the track.  I guess that’s why quite a few athletes prepare for contests with their earphones plugged in and a steely focus on their faces.  There is something about its motivational effect, when the pulsating beat pushes the positive message, that helps get athletes ready to compete.

As athletic director it was my responsibility each year during the Honors Day Ceremony, to give recognition to all the participants in our sports program.  Team  by team I would announce results of sports seasons, the teams’ accomplishments and highlights, and any honors they had earned.  As I was preparing this one particular year, it became obvious that several of our teams had performed at very high levels, making it to the championships of their leagues.  However, in almost every case, they had not finished first, leaving them unable to take home the big trophy, unable to hang another championship banner in our gym.  It struck me as an interesting statistic that year, and I wondered how I might be able to encourage these high performers who had narrowly missed the top prize.

After a bit of research, I discovered some interesting facts which I was able to share with these young athletes.  Did you know that some of the most successful individuals in their field also felt the sting of losing the big prize at one time or another in their careers?  For example, a thirteen-year-old Tiger Woods, who is undeniably among the greatest players in golf history, missed winning his first major national junior golf match by only a stroke.   And who could forget the recently-retired, record-setting, all time great NFL quarterback Peyton Manning?  Although his collegiate career is legendary, in 1997 he was the runner-up for football’s most coveted award, the Heisman Trophy.

In a completely different arena, Beyonce later called it “the best message” to her, early in her career, when she and her girls’ group were eliminated by a boys’ rock band on Star Search.  At the time she was twelve years old.  The multiple Grammy winning superstar has said that it made her “more determined than ever.”  It caused her to “realize that you could actually work super hard and give everything you have and lose.” (Time.com)

Someone asked me the other day, which is worse: losing by a field goal in 3 overtimes, or being completely out of a game being beaten 50-13?  To me it’s a no-brainer.  The three previous examples of individuals who barely missed in competing to be the best of the best were somehow able to convert a piercing disappointment into determination, motivation, and preparation which ultimately led to unparalleled success.  It’s makes me wonder if that would have happened had they not felt the heartbreak of a narrow loss.

Now there’s a message for your young athlete the next time they experience the crushing disappointment of a near-miss victory.  You may not be the winner today, but you better believe you will be remembered if you allow the defeat to sharpen your focus and strengthen your will to improve.  That’s something you can carry with you through life.

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