Monday, August 13, 2012

The Self-Imposed Agony of Defeat

Remember the old TV sports show, Wide World of Sports?  Its introductory catch-phrase was “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”   What I remember most is the concurrence of the phrase “agony of defeat” and the video of a skier crashing through a fence on a missed landing from an enormous ski jump.  I was convinced the guy broke several bones and/or suffered a debilitating head injury.

At this year’s Olympics, “the agony of defeat” took on a whole new meaning.  Instead of describing a horrible failure in the execution of a sports skill, it better described the silver medalists’ reaction to the scoring and the podium presentations.  The silver medalists accomplished amazing things and had spectacular performances, but one person in a world of 6,790,000,000 had a very slightly better performance.  It was absolutely crushing.


For most of us, especially us very competitive folks, it is easy to understand the disappointment of getting so close to victory and then finishing second because of one small imperfection.  For Chinese athletes, the emotions extend to letting down the entire country of 600,000,000 people and whole communist/capitalist system of government.  (Are we still doing national medal counts because we are trying to prove that democracy is better than communism, or the other way around, or is it just nationalism?)

Personally, I quite naturally slip into thinking that there is one winner and everyone else is a loser.  That makes me, and probably many of you, a loser almost all of the time.  I am right at home feeling inadequate and unworthy.  I relate to grumpy silver medal winners losers more than gold medal winners, and even more to devastated fourth place non-podium Olympic Games participants bigger losers …. I attribute my reaction to lack of affection and unconditional approval from my parents, and consider it a character defect – one more inadequacy.  I had no idea that so many suffer from the same malady.

At the highest level of sport, it seems very competitive athletes can turn something they love and excel at into a miserable grind with a painful payoff.  Just once I would like to hear an athlete say “I loved the four years of training” and the competition at the Olympics was “the most exhilarating experience of my life even though I didn’t win gold.”  Instead they talk about all the grueling work and how bad they “want it.”  For all but one, they are some of the world’s best examples of the Buddhist principle that “desire causes suffering.”  Even for the one, there seems to be a lot of agony in victory.

So let’s CUT IT OUT!  Playing sports is fun!  Getting better at something is satisfying.  Playing the game is a fascinating challenge in itself.  Can’t that be enough?  Get some perspective. 

It’s therapeutic to say that, but saying and doing are different things.  A week ago, I spent the afternoon racing my laser in about 17 knots of wind.  I would have been comfortable in my radial, but the wind looked to be only 10 when we went out, so we all sailed full rigs.  Most of us were totally overpowered.   It was a hard day of racing, perhaps even miserable.  Every upwind was a slow, painful, poorly sailed grind.  Speed and positions were determined by sailor weight.  The same guy (not me) was out front every time.  I never even challenged him.  Only grievous errors like terrible tacks and knots in mainsheets changed the finishing order of us lightweights.  After about two-thirds of our usual sailing time, we had all had it. 

Once on shore, I realized that it had never even occurred to me to enjoy all that wind by taking a few minutes to go off on a screaming planing reach just for fun.  It hadn’t occurred to any of us.  Our mindset was that racing and trying to win were everything, even when there was very little competition.  I ended my day feeling like an exhausted, unsatisfied silver medalist. 

Of course racing is fun and challenging and full of goodness.  But some days, maybe sailing should just be this:


  1. Great points. I heard one commentator say that a study has shown that bronze medalists were happier than silver medalists. I guess that makes sense. The silver medalist is often someone who expected to get gold but just failed. And they are thinking about how close they were to winning. Whereas the bronze medalist is often someone who is one of a pack of half a dozen or more contestants who had a chance of a medal. And they are thinking how fortunate they are to make it.

    As for your comment on how to deal psychologically with a long hard day of racing that isn't fun any more... I have a slightly different take on how to handle it and plan to write a post on that topic in the next few days.

  2. Great! I've been waiting for Tillerman to do another post about rum.

  3. Excellent perspective on the destructive aspects of competition, where there is only one 'winner' and everyone else is a 'loser'.

    Hands up everyone that wants to be a 'loser'.

    No I didn' think so.

    1. Everyone who sails a Laser is already a winner.

  4. Winning is always nice (not that I know much about that), but I think being somewhere in the middle of a good sized, skilled fleet is not a bad place to be. You don't have to worry about fighting for first place, and you probably won't be dead last holding up the next start. You can watch and learn from the better sailors who are usually very happy to pass along their wisdom, and you can judge your own progress pretty easily.