If you’re not first, you’re not last


In his last solo race as an Olympic swimmer, Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer of all time finished tied for second. I was struck when I heard people saying that Phelps “lost” the race.

True. He didn’t win.

But he was the silver medalist!

Was his goal to win silver? No.

But is it gold or bust? Reminds me of the Will Ferrell movies “Talladega Nights” where he says “if you’re not first your last.”

Of course it’s good to be competitive and to want to win, and to compete to win.

But I feel that sports is one of the few enterprises where we have this “first or else you’ve lost” mentality.

And it’s not just Olympic sports. I hear people nit pick professional athletes. LeBron James isn’t Michael Jordan.

People would criticize Payton Manning for not getting the job done in big games and how he wasn’t as good as Tom Brady. For sake of argument, let’s agree that Manning wasn’t as good as Brady is. If he’s the second best person in the world at what he does, that’s incredible.

If someone is the second best neurosurgeon, we don’t nitpick “well they’re no Dr. ——” and talk about the second best person like they’re a loser. If someone has the second best restaurant, we don’t think the food stinks.

What’s more, for the person who takes this attitude, what are you doing with your life where you’re the absolute best in the world?

In team sports, we’ve decided that if someone doesn’t have a championship, their career achievements are indelibly tarnished. Johnny Depp, John Travolta, Liam Neeson, Tom Cruise: none of these actors have ever won an Oscar.

I think it’s a bad lesson that it’s always all about winning.

Because no one always wins at everything in life. In a second Olympic event, two runners, American Abbey D’Agostina and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand both went down after Hamlin fell during qualifying for the 5,000 meters. Hamblin stayed down for a moment before D’Agostina prodded her into getting up to continue. Towards the end of the race, D’Agostina went down and it was Hamblin who was there to offer support.

It gave me chills. To see the sportsmanship.

The two runners came in last.

But isn’t there a greater lesson than “if you’re not first, you’re last?”

That you sometimes face obstacles where it can be easy to give up, or to wallow but that it’s worth pushing on anyway? That it says something about a person’s character to continue to try even when you’re going to lose?

Like I said, in life, we all have losses. We all take tumbles (literally and metaphorically). And if you don’t, if you always do accomplish everything you try for, maybe you’ve never really pushed yourself to another level to be even greater.

For D’Agostina and Hamlin, finishing wasn’t easy. D’Agostina suffered a knee injury and had to be wheeled off the track after finishing. When the two fell, they still had four more laps to run.

Again, my point isn’t to say that it’s bad to be competitive. I like to win too. But in sports, people who aren’t actually in the competition get so highly critical of those who are to irrational levels. Returning to Phelps winning the silver medal: Phelps is undeniably the greatest swimmer of all time.

Along with the idea of “if you’re not first, you’re last” is the famous quote from Red Sanders (often attributed to Vince Lombardi), “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” But winning isn’t the only thing. And often times it’s through losses and setbacks where our most significant growth can occur.

Growth and overcoming challenges ultimately matters far more to who we are as people than whether or not you won.