Will second place Olympic finish in London give athletes a silver lining?Reported by Metro.co.uk on Tuesday, 17 July 2012 (on July 17, 2012)
*With thousands of Olympians arriving in Britain, Metro asks how many of them would be happy with silver. Is coming second good enough?
Great Britain's Roger Black comes second to American Michael Johnson in the Olympic 400m final at Atlanta in 1996 (Picture: REXSCANPIX)
‘If you ain’t first, you’re last.’
If you’re wondering which sporting icon uttered the above maxim, it wasn’t Tiger Woods. Nor was it Roger Federer or Usain Bolt. It was a motorsports star, but not Lewis Hamilton or Michael Schumacher.
These words of wisdom came from the mouth of fictional NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, played by Will Ferrell.
Okay, so Mr Bobby also came up with the meaningless catchphrase ‘shake and bake’, but did he inadvertently tap into something all top sportsmen and women believe? That winning is everything and second is nowhere? Indeed, away from Hollywood, the late NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Sr once said: ‘Second place is just the first place loser.’
If that is the case in the minds of professional athletes, there will be a lot of disappointed competitors at the Olympic Games in London.
Not everyone can win gold, but do athletes steel themselves with that knowledge before the starting gun is fired, or is it just a harsh realisation that only occurs when they are standing on that podium looking up at someone else? Shouldn’t they just be satisfied with silver?
‘No sports person I've ever known has ever been happy to accept second place,’ said sports psychologist Ken Way, author of Mental Mastery: Tried and Tested Techniques for Exceptional Sports Performance, who works with Premier League footballers who are established internationals.
He also has helped strengthen the minds of top sports people in rugby, tennis, cricket, golf, squash and fencing.
Mr Way said there is one taboo topic when it comes to dealing with the world’s fastest, strongest and most skilful.
‘You do not talk about second place or second best,’ he told Metro.
Does this mean The Simpsons was on to something when it described the Olympics as being about giving out medals of ‘beautiful gold, so-so silver and shameful bronze’?
Intriguingly, had the Olympics stuck with tradition for the past 100 years or so, every sports person descending on London would be gunning for silver over the next month.
In the first Olympic Games of the modern era in 1896, the winners in each category were actually given silver medals – gold for first place didn’t become the norm until the 1904 Games.
Sometimes coming second can send you down in folklore. Would Jimmy White be as loved in snooker circles if he had managed to win one of the six world championship finals he contested? Would the Dutch football team be talked about with such reverence if they had won the 1974 world cup final against West Germany? The Germans, while occasionally miffed that their superior – and often just as exciting – team is sometimes forgotten, are probably just glad to have the trophy.
A recent study by Cornell University, who examined the facial reactions of Olympians who had just won a medal, found that those who won bronze were happier than those who had snatched silver.
Mr Way, who has worked with sports people for more than 25 years, is sceptical. ‘I've never experienced any top sportsman or woman saying they'd be happier getting bronze than silver,’ he said. ‘Silver says, "So close", bronze says, "I also competed".’
Although a sports psychologist will not speak to an athlete about finishing second before an event, Mr Way believes there is nothing shameful about coming just after the eventual winner.
‘I don't think it has a stigma as such, but it does depend on how many are in the race.
‘If you look at the sadness produced in soccer cup finals, play-off finals or the final of Wimbledon, of course - you can see that it really hurts when you come second out of two!
‘The emotional response does relate to expectations, which also relate to the number of competitors.
‘It is sometimes very difficult to help someone get over the bitter disappointment of finishing second, especially in a final – just ask Andy Murray. At such moments it feels as if they've achieved nothing, it's all been in vain. It takes a bit of time for someone to recognise that they have achieved something worthwhile.’
Despite focusing on first, athletes are allowed to be realistic. Mr Way said Olympic silver medallist Roger Black concentrated on running his own race in the 1996 400m final in Atlanta, knowing it was unlikely that gold medal winner Michael Johnson could be beaten.
‘He was purely focused on running his best ever performance and felt no-one could touch Johnson,’ said Mr Way.
‘Roger Black's game plan was quite right – you focus on performing at your best, not the result.’
He said sports psychologists refer to outcome goals (where an athlete finishes on the podium), performance goals (aiming for a personal best) and process goals (the smaller details that help them perform).
‘Too many people focus on the outcome goal and that's what screws their performance up – think Rory Mcllroy at the Masters last year.’
Mr Way said there are a few athletes who would take a silver medal at the Games if offered it now, but he thinks they will be the competitors who don’t imagine they will make it through to the final of their events.
‘I've read a couple of stories and quotes from individuals and teams who are not targeting a medal-winning position,’ he said. ‘This is not as defeatist or negative as it may seem to be.
‘There's a world of difference between the kind of professional visualisations used by top athletes and simple day-dreaming.’
QUIZ on famous and not-so-famous seconds:
1. Who was the second man after Roger Bannister to run a mile in under four minutes?
2. Who was the second man on the Moon?
3. Who directed The Empire Strikes Back, the sequel to Star Wars?
4. Who came second in the men’s doubles tennis at the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996?
5. Who scored England’s second goal in the 1966 world cup final?
6. What was the second James Bond film?
7. What is the second book of the Bible?
8. Who came second in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest with what inappropriately named song?
9. Who came second to American Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympic long jump in Berlin?
10. Who was the second man to reach the top of Mount Everest?
11. What was the second film to win all five major Oscars?
12. Who was the second US president?
13. What was the Spice Girls' second British Number One single?
14. What is the second biggest-selling album of all time in Britain?
15. Who was the second person to win £1m on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
16. Who was Britain’s second £1m footballer?
17. Who finished second, in between Sebastian Coe in first and Steve Ovett in third, in the 1500m in the 1980 Moscow Olympics?
18. What was the second video to be uploaded to YouTube?
19. Who was second behind Linford Christie in the 100m final at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992?
20. What was the second single to be played in full on Radio 1?
21. What was the second Premier League fixture to be televised live by Sky Sports?
22. Who scored the second ever Premier League goal?
23. Who was the second person to swim across the English Channel?
24. Who was the second woman to take her seat as an MP?
1. John Landy
2. Buzz Aldrin
3. Irvin Kershner
4. Neil Broad and Tim Henman
5. Martin Peters
6. From Russia With Love
8. Cliff Richard with Congratulations
9. Luz Long
10. Tenzing Norgay
11. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
12. John Adams
13. Say You’ll Be There
14. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles
15. David Edwards
16. Steve Daley
17. Jürgen Straub
18. My Snowboarding Skillz
19. Frankie Fredericks
20. Massachusetts – The Bee Gees
21. Manchester City v Queens Park Rangers
22. John Williams, Coventry City
23. Thomas William Burgess
24. Margaret Wintringham
Links: Full news story
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