Celebrate the “Losers,” Not the Winners

Why losers deserve our admiration more than winners.

Posted Jan 14, 2020

Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock
Source: Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock

It sure is a great time to be a winner in sports (and everything else, for that matter). Being perceived as a success has always had its rewards.

But these days, the upsides are far greater than ever before. Success has always been a part of the sports dream, whether competing collegiately, competing internationally, finding success as a professional athlete, or making or medaling in the Olympics. But now, those who truly “make it” can expect wealth, fame, and idolization from fans far beyond anything experienced by previous generations of the world’s best athletes.

Some might say that winners deserve everything they get. It certainly takes immense commitment, determination, discipline, and persistence to find success in our sport. It is decidedly the American Way for those efforts to be rewarded.

Think of everything that winners get for, well, winning. As the saying goes, “To the victor goes the spoils,” and those spoils in many sports include, in the short term, attention from coaches, equipment sponsorships, and invitations to select training camps, and in the long run, media coverage, promotional contracts, and fan adoration.

Let’s compare these and other winners to everyone else, those who may be deemed “losers” in sports (where anything less than winning is often defined as losing). Many of these so-called losers demonstrate the exact same attributes and put in the same amount of time as the winners, but don’t find success by dint of lack of inborn talent, early exposure, necessary support, required resources, or available opportunity. Yet, I would suggest that these “losers” are, in some ways, far more worthy of our admiration and, yes, our adulation than the winners.

How could that be, you may ask. One simple reason. They continue to pursue their dreams, however impossible they may be, with the same vigor as the winners but without the immediate and manifest rewards and without the “carrot” of long-term success.

These losers do what they do not for the external rewards that accrue for the winners and the incentives that they will reap in the future. Though they may dream early in their efforts of the vast riches that might come their way, those dreams are soon realized as pipe dreams that will never come true. Some of these losers then quit because those external rewards are no longer within reach, so they think, “What’s the point?” These aren’t the losers that I am referring to.

I’m talking about those who, despite the realization that there is no metaphorical pot of gold at the end of their athletic rainbow, continue to push forward in their journey. Not for the rewards they quickly learn will not be forthcoming but out of their sheer passion for the experience, their absorption in the journey, and the fulfillment that comes from committing themselves fully to something that holds deep meaning to them. What drives them is the intrinsic value they gain from putting their hearts and souls into their pursuits and the knowledge that at the end of their journey, they will have given it their all, regardless of how far they go.

Additionally, they can then apply the patience, persistence, and perseverance that they learn and exhibit in their externally thankless journey in sports, as well as the essential life lessons that are acquired, to the future journeys they take beyond sports that may very well lead to success as defined by our achievement culture. I would suggest that, in many ways, what the so-called losers do actually makes them winners far more deservedly so than the so-called winners whom we deify with such ease and intensity. Why? Because the struggle to continue their journey without external motivation or a clear endgame takes far more fortitude than the journey by those whom we label as winners and who are constantly rewarded for their efforts.

This somewhat heretical view of the pursuit of achievement reminds me of a young athlete I met many years ago when I was working with a top youth-sports program in the U.S. I’ll call him Brian to preserve his anonymity. Brian was, by all accounts, a terrible athlete; everybody knew it, and he knew it too. He finished far down the second page of the result sheets. Yet, he was always the first one at practice in the morning and the last one to leave.

Brian was diligent in his conditioning, equipment preparation, and watching video. He was also the first to volunteer to help the coaches when asked. And, remarkably, he was the first to congratulate those who found success in competitions.

One day I was sitting with Brian in the stands after practice, and I asked him why he worked so hard given his results.

He turned to me and said, “Jim, are you kidding me? I’m living the dream!”

I looked back at him, smiled, and said: “Brian, you may not be a very good athlete, but you are going to be incredibly successful at something.”

I have followed Brian’s journey since then, during which time he attended a top Eastern university, graduated from medical school, and is now a physician. Brian was a so-called loser as an athlete, but those seemingly failing experiences on snow laid the foundation for his success later in life. When I speak to young athletes about their journey in our sport, I of course point to the world’s best athletes in their sport as exemplars of what is possible and how they made it possible. At the same time, I also tell Brian’s story because, in many ways, his journey is much more relatable and, to me, much more powerful an exemplar of what is possible not only in our sport but, more importantly, in life after sports.

So, next time you have the opportunity to congratulate someone for their efforts, don’t immediately reach out to those standing tall on the podium; they have it easy. Instead, celebrate the so-called losers whose day-to-day struggles aren’t rewarded. Approach these “also-rans,” give them a high-five, and tell them you admire them. Because the journey they are on takes, in my view, far more “grit, grace, and courage” (to quote a motto from a leading sports academy) than the journey taken by the winners in sports.