Winning Gold is Not the Point

As it turns out, the 2004 Olympic coach for the United States Judo team is also a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University. During the games in Athens, he and his colleagues used a high speed camera to record the second by second facial expressions of Judo athletes right after metal matches. They wanted to learn what expressions people used when they learned they won gold, silver and bronze.

David Matsumoto and his team examined 84 athletes from 35 different countries. The study found striking similarities in how athletes responded in the first milliseconds following victory (smiling) or defeat (sadness or no expression). What was most striking was how much happier gold and bronze winners were, while silver winners universally did not display happy emotions.

Matsumoto conducted the same study at the Paralympic Games a few weeks later, where blindness is the disability for Judo. Since these athletes would not have learned any expression from watching the faces of others, it provided a good control. As expected, the pure emotion of the blind athletes was identical to the sighted ones.

Jerry Seinfeld has a bit about how winning silver is worse than winning bronze. A bronze medalist is happy because s/he made it to the podium. Gold of course beat everyone. But the silver winner, doesn’t feel like a winner at all, simply because they came in second to gold.

This notion that “silver is the first loser” is limited thinking at its height. Instead of celebrating the fact that they won the position of second best in the world for their event, Matsumoto’s studies showed silver athlete’s universally felt depressed, or even angry. At the podium, the majority of silver medalists attempted to put a good show and be happy during the ceremony, but Matsumoto’s high-speed cameras and detailed facial tracking told the real story.

I think most of us would agree that winning an Olympic medal is a pinnacle accomplishment — no matter what its color. Actually, just making it to the Olympics is a monumental achievement! However, like fixating on the bullseye of a target, many people make the mistake of setting a big goal and only being satisfied if they achieve it exactly. When in reality, the fact that they reach the general vicinity of their goal, brings them a lot further than going for one that was less lofty.

This is what makes stretch goals so effective. You shoot for something out of your comfort zone beyond what you think you can do, and work towards it. Even if you don’t quite get there, the benefits you garner from getting close to your goal are often very similar to the attributes you expected to gain by reaching your goal exactly. The end result is you’ve been stretched and achieved more than you thought you could and your life is in a better place because of it.

Shifting this mindset around goals not only makes them more achievable, it makes them more enjoyable to achieve. Who wants to put in all of the time, effort, pain and sacrifice only to feel like a failure when they don’t quite hit the bullseye? Yet, that’s exactly what so many of us do.

Striving to hit within a range is like an athlete stretching themselves to make it on the Olympic team. We still get to go to the games, walk in the Parade of Nations, live in the Athletic Village and compete against the best in the world. While there we continue to push ourselves to do our very best. Of course we want to make it to the podium and win gold, but if silver is where we land, we can still celebrate our success with pride and joy.

Choose a goal that you’ve long wanted to achieve. What’s the range of results that you would be satisfied with: where it starts with making the Olympic team (the basic goal), and ends with winning gold (the stretch goal)? How does setting these milestones, ease the pressure and make your goal feel more achievable? If you’re happy landing anywhere on this spectrum, then take the leap!

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.” — Pierre de Coubertin

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