I think if I was an Olympic athlete, I would rather come in last than win the silver, if you think about it. You know, you win the gold, you feel good. You win the bronze, you think, well, at least I got something. But you win that silver, that’s like congratulations, you almost won. Of all the losers, you came in first of that group.

You’re the number one loser.

— Jerry Seinfeld


FACT:  Winning the silver medal is confirmation and recognition that your performance was better than the athlete that won the bronze, and better than all the competitors that didn’t win any medal at all.

Athletes winning the silver medal should be happier than athletes winning the bronze medal.  They did better; they performed better; they should be more satisfied, right?

Turns out, no, not right.  Turns out, Jerry was onto something.

According to recent research, first looking at the 1992 games in Barcelona with follow up studies since, the silver medalists were significantly less happy than the bronze medalists!

Chalk it up to a skewed perspective.

Ironically, while the athletes’ actual performance is a function of their physicality and skill, their perceived performance is a function of mental gymnastics.  They square their actual performance with their expectations.  They compare their performance to their competitors’ performances.  They mentally frame their success.

Winning is everything.  Until it’s not.  Then you are — at best — Jerry’s silver medal winner, and the number one loser …

Expect the gold, and fall short, even by one one-hundredth of a second, and you are disappointed.  Second in the world in your event, better than everyone else on the planet save one, and you are not happy.

But with expectations more modest … I just want to qualify and go to London … I just want to qualify for that finals  … I just want to get on the podium … satisfaction and happiness accompany lesser accomplishments!

Now you might think this is rather trivial.  Or you might think that while this is troubling, it really is only temporary, transitory.  After the Olympics, most athletes go on to live productive and satisfying lives…

But consider this account by the researchers

A long-distance runner, who was well ahead and then faded at the end and got the silver medal, said, when he was 92 years old, that a day doesn’t go by when he doesn’t think of how he let the gold slip away.

Jerry was onto something.  The power of framing is not inconsequential.

I suspect you would join me in easily understanding the athletic coach’s perspective: having high expectations leads to better performance; furthermore, being disappointed with current performance leads to a stronger commitment to produce future performance.

And, if we’re honest, it doesn’t begin and end with the sports coaches; this might get a little too close to home for some, but how about how we as parents help our children experience whatever sport they are participating in?  Are we supporting and facilitating so they can learn, develop, and do their best?  Or are we emphasizing winning; high expectations; and performing better than Mikey?

And can we give some airtime to the life coach’s voice?  I imagine our life coach would caution us that comparing our self to other people or even to our own expectations is a recipe for unhappiness…

Win gold, and you’re golden!  You are good to go…

Make it onto the podium with a bronze and, odds are, you are ecstatic and appreciative and feel exceedingly fortunate…

Take the silver, second place, and… well… Jerry was onto something.

— Adapted from an NPR Morning Edition report on 8/3/2012; listen to the segment here.