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Lisa Ferentz, LCSW-C, DAPA

It’s Better to Win Bronze: Lessons We Can Learn from the Olympics

The 2024 Olympics will take place in Paris towards the end of July. In the past, an article in Sports Illustrated reported that “athletes who win Bronze medals are much happier than athletes who win Silver medals.” Apparently, winning a Silver medal evokes“tremendous frustration” because the Gold medal was within their reach and they fell short. Bronze medalists feel grateful for winning anything at all, and focus on the accomplishment of capturing a medal rather than “failing” to achieve Gold. This actually sounds healthier to me. And I imagine that despite the glory and elation of winning Gold, it must place tremendous pressure on an athlete to maintain and sustain that level of success in all future endeavors.It becomes the new yardstick that everything else is measured against. 

I’ve always felt sad for athletes who have already achieved remarkable success-by virtue of the fact that they have made their respective Olympic teams-looking devastated when they don't win Gold. Athletes from certain countries have been forced to apologize on air for “shaming” their homeland by not bringing back Gold. What message does that reinforce for young people operating from adolescent brains who already view the world and themselves in “all or nothing” terms? Doesn't it normalize inner criticism and perfectionism? Wouldn’t it be better to model that “success” and accomplishment is about vision, effort,determination, courage, hard work, and not giving up in the face of adversity? For me, the cyclists, runners, and gymnasts who fall, get back up and keep going are true “winners” too.

The Flawed Metrics for Success

Are parents sending the wrong message to their children?

It's also concerning when “success” is measured by “sticking the landing” in gymnastics, or “not making a splash in the pool” after diving in. In both cases, it seems as if the extraordinary effort and skill that goes into performing incredible feats simply don't count if the last millisecond of the routine is anything less than perfect.  Again, what messages are we giving when Olympic commentators minimize or even ignore the brilliant effort and gasp in anguish, lamenting the fact that an imperfect finish has “ruined”the routine?  I worry that this mindset permeates sports and other endeavors on less competitive levels, too. Are parents sending the message to their children that their efforts are only valuable if they get the lead in the school play, merit the "first" violin seat, always "start" on their sports team, get accepted to their "first-choice" college, or win the high school debate?

All the hard work should count and never be minimized by a hierarchy of colored medals. We are never motivated by self-criticism, perfectionism, or shame. It won’t resonate to take healthy risks when we see ourselves as losers.  I’ll be watching these Olympic games closely, hoping to be inspired by athletes who offer a different message.  But maybe we can all take a lesson from Olympic athletes who win Bronze medals, who truly celebrate their efforts, and feel a sense of deep satisfaction for their accomplishments.

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