Monday, March 8, 2010

Losing at the Olympics

This subject has come up many times in conversation, over the past month.

The comments go something like this:

(referring to someone who has lost at the Olympics, and therefore did not get a gold medal, or any medal at all, etc.):

"What an incredible waste -- a waste of time, a waste of effort, to train all those years, to get all the way to the Olympics, to base your whole life on excelling in your sport, only to lose at the end!"

It seems to me that children or adults who have grown up being involved with athletics, and who have had good coaching over the years, have gained a good understanding of this issue (at best, I think athletic involvement can help considerably with personal growth).  Their response might be something like this:

"It is a joy and an honour to participate in the sport.  To play at all is meaningful.  To train for something is an intrinsic joy.  To be part of a community event, whether at a local community arena, or at the Olympics, is exciting, fun, and meaningful.  The meaning of all those years of training does not depend on winning a medal (although a medal would be nice!) -- all that training was an act of love, my life has been better because of it, regardless of any medals."
Most of the Olympic competitors were very gracious and honorable in their wins or losses.  The occasional individuals who were not gracious were really the only ones who "lost."  

Of course, there are issues about financial compensation, future career opportunities, etc. which may depend on winning, in one form or another.  And it could be deeply disappointing if a particular goal is not reached, and may not ever be reachable again (e.g. to make the Olympic team, to win a medal, etc.).

But psychological health cannot depend on such things.  I don't believe that Olympic athletes experience significant depressions due to losing...because the joy & meaning do not depend on winning or losing, they depend on the process.

Few of us are Olympic athletes, but we all have analogous life pathways...many of us view life success as dependent on some external "win" such as getting high grades, getting into the right school or program, getting the best job, having money, car, house, relationship, being a certain body type or weight,  etc.

Provided that an individual is not in an impoverished state (financially,  nutritionally, neurophysiologically, psychosocially, etc.), I claim that success in life is dependent on process, not on winning anything.  While the pursuit of excellence is itself a healthy and enjoyable process, it ironically cannot proceed if the pursuit of excellence becomes frozen into a pursuit of "winning."  Winning will happen, on multiple levels, if a joy of process is nurtured.


Anonymous said...

Part 1-
Thanks for you post.
Which I agree with.

A couple of things to add.

1) I think the title of the post should probably be changed to "medal-less but regret-less: Vancouver Olympics 2010"

2) There is too much emphasis on outcome. Outcome. Outcome. Outcome. (I guess I just emphasized it myself.) There is too much emphasis on outcome and tangible rewards like rank, the color of a medal won or not won or the presence of your name on a plaque or certificate.

My aunt used to tell me when I was young” life is not about the destination but the journey it took to get there.” (I like to think this was “her” quote… but I am pretty sure these wise words belong to another.) I wholeheartedly believe these words but have found it desperately discouraging to fight intimate others who don’t seem to understand this premise.

Whoever the author, the words remain true.

For example: Why does an audience watch a specific athletic performance? Is it to find out who wins? If this were true, I would advise you to skip the final, Olympic, gold medal hockey match and catch the highlights in the sports page/front page newspaper the morning after.

Or look up the list of academy award winners online the day after the Oscars.

Why does an audience watch a specific performance such as a Shakespearean play? Is it to know who lives and who dies? (Actually in this case the outcome is usually already known but the interest or enjoyment manifests in the construction, interpretation, emphasis, or improvisation the actors and directors have creatively imposed or extracted from the written world.)

My point is, very few people watch sports for the results
I believe (negating all the social and cultural aspects of observing sport competitions, art productions…etc; even though I realize this is slightly reductionist), many people want to watch the competition, the perseverance, the strategy aimed toward some ultimate goal. (This goal can be personal or team orientated; score based or time based). I believe people want to try to experience what the other players are doing or feeling and experience the performance THROUGH that athlete, actor, dancer, performer…ect.

Anonymous said...

Part 2-The incredible ability to experience or learn “through someone else” (ie: having theory of mind) and recognize that individuals act as intentional agents (with goals that may be different from our own) is one which unites humans as a species and allows the propagation of our social and cultural characteristics. (We may even have neurons specifically differentiated for this purpose…ie: mirror neurons)

3) There are no losers at the Olympics. The pathway leading to the Olympics is marked by success. Actually I could say the stones upon this path are made of GOLD.

Point of view and exposure is important here. I completely understand how some viewers mistakenly perceive medal-less wins at the Olympics as a “failure.” The truth is the audience is not shown the process or journey in order to fulfill his or her dream. They are not shown the hundreds of small successes and small moments of joy, happiness, and satisfaction that participants feel everyday their body allows them to practice or compete.

Even the Denmark gentleman who finished 48th in the Men's 50 km, Mass Start Classic, Cross Country Skiing Competition is a winner.

So let us define this term:
Winners are individuals who have the courage to compete.

They have the courage to deal with a great amount of uncertainty regarding their outcome. The courage to know, before they compete, that there is a possibility of feeling deep, heartfelt grief due to a potential negative result. The courage to present themselves and their vulnerabilities to inexperienced others who will judge, scrutinize, photograph and potentially degrade their performance.

I think Harper Lee’s character Atticus, summed up courage in this well know quote: “I want you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know your licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

4) The courage elicited in these athletes is a testament of their love. In this case their love of sport

Alfred Lord Tennyson spouted these words: “'Tis better to have loved and lost
than never to have loved at all.”

Whether alluding to sports, careers, professions, relationships or any entity, tangible or abstract it is better to have tried and fallen short than never to have tried at all.

Actually, you never loose when you try. Even though you may fall short of your expected goal you are farther from your original point of contemplation. (That distance can be measure in little successes or acquiring the knowledge of what doesn’t work or…etc.)

Anonymous said...

Part 3-

Most Olympic athletes never stop trying. They try to push and test the boundaries of their mind and body. Again and again they CHOOSE to TRY. Until their body aches and they are emotionally broken, and still they CHOOSE to TRY.

At many points through out their athletic careers they may encounter innumerable and immense roadblocks. Each of which could have been an acceptable excuse to quit. A perfectly logical explanation of not continuing. However their love, dictates their courage to continue to choose to try.

Actually the only differences between ALL OF US are the choices we make out of love.

Some choose to financially support their family and quit school to work (because they love their family), others choose to work extra hours to put away money for the college funds of their children (because they love their children), some choose to go to university and study art or poetry or microbiology (for their love of art, poetry or microbiology respectively), some choose to travel and live a nomadic life (because of their love of new cultures and experiences), some choose to pursue a career in health care (because of their love to help others)….

And some choose to continue to compete in sport because of their love of sport.

A huge congratulation to all the LOSERS of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.

Thank you for choosing to share, your love of sport and courage to compete, with the world.

End notes:

A) You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to possess these traits. If you look hard enough, there are individuals all around us, all the time, who act courageously in the name of LOVE. Many go unrecognized and walk medal-less through our streets, neighborhoods, offices, and schools. I think the real goal is to recognize the Olympic LOVE within each of them and recognize their contributions. (Believe me, a small thank-you of recognition goes a long way. Hang your own Olympic medals around the people in your life who act out of love and passion everyday.)
B) Not every audience member is like the one I depict here and many are supportive, gracious and encouraging. Many refer to athlete disappointments with great person distress and empathy. I think, the major reason, audiences mistakenly overemphasize athlete sacrifices, is because the athletes and audience members weigh the importance of “sacrifice” and competition differently. Different people have different priorities, point of views, and different loves. Furthermore, negative sacrifices are easy to see and quantify while positive intangible love, enjoyment and fulfillment is easy to miss and hard to quantify.
C) Not all Olympic athletes are like the ones I depict here. The truth is we are all hopelessly flawed. Olympic athletes are people just like us and should not be worshiped. This puts too much pressure and too high of an expectation on the athletes.
D) These athletes are more than just the sport that they perform. Although it may be a huge part of their identity, it is only ONE PART. Let us not restrict their love and passion to sport alone. Many of them have other interests and achievements that go unrecognized. This is partially why I love to hear athlete interviews and “meet the athlete” nights.

Anonymous said...

my Dad used to tell me, over and over: "There is no point in playing if you playing to win". When I was young I felt it was him pushing me to try my hardest, to try so hard that I could not possibly lose.

As an adult, while I could tell anyone else that it was the journey that mattered, not whether you win or lose...inside myself I would place an immense amount of pressure on myself to win at everything I did. If I ever failed, or did not do as well as I expected myself to do, it literally destroyed me. I would find myself completely breaking down and/or falling apart if I did poorly on an an exam, or didn't do well on an essay.

I thought I was getting better at letting go of my need to "win", or please others, or be good in the eyes of others...but the other night I worked really hard to make a beautiful dinner for a large group of people.

Despite intense depression symptoms. I was feeling happy about how it all turned out, especially given how challenging it had been to plan and cook with symptoms making it hard to remember simple things.

I set the table beautifully, and placed the food on trays, and then set the food on the table so it looked good. I felt so good about what I had accomplished.

The head of the house came into the room for dinner, saw the table and said loudly, " "X" what have you done?" Immediately I felt my heart drop, my eyes well up with tears and found my brain suddenly telling me...I failed again. I can't do anything right."

I had to turn and leave the room, and lock myself in the washroom to get a grip on myself.

The person had been making a joke, because these large dinners are a daily event, where usually the food is set out on an island, cafeteria style. I had forgotten how all this was usually done due to some memory difficulties. She was "mocking" my over achievement behaviours.

My Dad's voice still, at 44 years old, insists I win at all I do. Of course, no one wins all the time, so I end up being disappointed in myself over and over and over.

I wish I could have listened more closely to my wonderful Mom...who genuinely meant it when she preached that "as long as you tried your hardest, and were kind to others, and enjoyed what you were doing...that is all that matters."

Why did my brain latch onto my authoritarian father's commando style, and not put more emphasis on my Mom's loving, accepting, and nurturing style?

Anonymous said...

I should have checked my writing before hitting "send"! Rather than what I misquoted my Dad saying..."There is no point in playing if you playing to win"

His real words were: "There is no point in playing UNLESS you are playing to win"! "No pain, no gain" was another of his "encouraging" comments.

Given all the pain I have endured in this keeping with his philosophy I should have been able to achieve whatever I desired. Hmmm.