The Psychology of Winning -- and Losing
Huettel says the fact that there is often such a fine line between winning and losing doesn't seem to affect how we feel about second best. "There's this classic study that looked at athletes in the Olympics. And they did something very, very clever: They just looked to see how happy athletes were when they won. They looked at photographs and had unbiased people coding what the facial expression were."
They were stunned at what they saw:
"You'll see the common pattern: The gold medalist is very happy, the bronze medalist is very happy, and the silver medalist often had this sort of blank expression on his or her face -- sort of staring out into the distance."
Of course, there's no shame in silver... unless you can't stop fixating on gold.
"The bronze medalists had thoughts that compared themselves to everybody else, so they thought, 'Wow, if I'd only done a little worse, I would be one of those many people that's not here on the medal stand -- I made it, I'm a medalist!'" said Huettel. "The silver medalists, though, had thoughts that compared themselves to the gold medalist -- I just missed it!'"
An example: Bronze medalist Ryan Lochte, beaming on the podium, next to silver medalist Laszlo Cseh (left, in Beijing in 2008). "He is the second best swimmer in the world, and he is miserable," said Huettel.
Olympians aren't the only ones who hate coming up short. We ALL do, and that keeps business booming for sports psychologist William Wiener. His clients -- from pro athletes to Little Leaguers (and, of course, their parents) -- have one thing in common, he says: "In their minds, losing is catastrophic."
"When your clients come to you and say, 'Okay, help me win,' how do you go about it?" asked Spencer.
"They have to set goals that are in their control rather than outside their control," Wiener said. "If you come in with a goal of winning a gold medal, that's not [a] very adaptive or effective goal to set. If you say, 'I want to run 40 miles a week,' that's within your control."
But as we all know, hard work and achievable goals don't guarantee a win. Probably the most important thing, Huettel said, is luck.
"A Super Bowl might be decided by a single kick or a single catch," he said. "Or the wind, or a coaching mistake, or a flip of a coin at the beginning of overtime. So those various minor effects that could be luck are narrowly separating the winners from the non-winners."
Winning, he says, is overrated -- an uplifting thought that might get you thrown out of the locker room of today's losing Super Bowl team.
Jim Kelly says, "There's always going to be a major emphasis on winning, because that's just the way society is. That's just the way our culture is: That you want to be number one at the end. And if you're number two, at times, there's no doubt that number two is looked upon as mediocre, as a person that didn't achieve it, sometimes as losers."