The Real Issue with Fourth-Place Trophies
The other day, Kobe Bryant posted a picture of his daughter’s basketball team from two years ago—her team had finished fourth and had each received a trophy for their efforts. Kobe went on to say that he told his daughter, and all of her teammates, to keep the trophies somewhere in their house where they could see it every day, as a way to motivate them to be better and never win a fourth place trophy again.
This is something I think about all the time when I’m coaching.
After every drill my team does, there is a winner and a loser. That’s it. The problem with today’s society is that we try and protect people from the inevitability of losing. In my opinion, losing is not something that people should be protected from. It’s something to embrace. Losing, if framed properly, is the best way to learn how to win.
All the greats will tell you—winning is a habit. However, it can only become a habit if we believe there is something wrong with losing and therefore strive to win. In today’s world, kids are facing more mental health and self-esteem challenges than ever before because they have been told their whole lives that they are winners and have never had to deal with the reality that in life, not everyone gets to win. The downfall of this mentality is that eventually, these kids grow up and enter the real world; and instead of learning how to fail at age five, they’re learning at twenty. As a result, the failure becomes overwhelming and because they have not learned the skills necessary to deal with the failure, they implode.
I love the message Kobe had for his team. “You finished fourth, they gave you a trophy, and it’s not the trophy you wanted. Therefore, you need to get better so that you can earn your first-place trophy. So, let’s learn from this, work as hard as we possibly can, and go get that #1 trophy in the future.”
His team earned their first-place trophy just a couple of weeks ago.
When I look at my personal life story, there is failure written all over it. Because of this, I have become immune to the negativity associated with failure. I expect it and welcome it as part of the journey to success. I’ve come to the point now where I don’t think things are going to go well or be easy. I just continue to tell myself, “I will get to the finish line and I will win when I get there. It’s just going to take some time.”
Eventually, we WILL WIN.
One of my favorite quotes from Bill Gates is, “People over-estimate what they can achieve in one year and underestimate what they can achieve in ten years.” I go back to this quote all the time when things don’t go my way. Failure and the process of getting better will eventually lead me to the finish line.
There’s a flip side to this:
Five years ago, I coached one of my favourite teams. I coached this group for five years, from Grade 8, all the way until Grade 12. When I started coaching them, they weren’t very good and the high school they went to didn’t have much of a basketball program.
So, together, we created a culture. The kids put in the work, and we spent five years trying to get better and prepare ourselves for big moments. Then, in their senior year, we lost in the Provincial Final in overtime. When I got home, I was devastated. It was all over and we didn’t win. That loss stayed with me and the team for quite some time.
Looking back on it now, I still wish we had won that game. It would have been about 100 times better. However, the journey of putting ourselves on the on the line, putting in the hard work, and staying disciplined enough to be considered one of the best was well worth it (even if, on paper, we lost in the end).
The fact is, sometimes life really sucks, and you don’t get what you want. Then you learn that that’s okay. Leaving it all on the line and seeing how far you can push yourself is perhaps the only goal that truly matters. Of course, winning always makes things better, but the kids that were on that team will forever understand the work ethic required to achieve greatness. In fact, when they grow up and have kids of their own, I bet that they’ll push their kids to make the necessary sacrifices to take their passion to the next level—to see if they can make something great happen. That specific group of athletes has already achieved tons of success in their post-secondary careers. I have no doubt that they’ll go on to become doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, nurses, teachers or whatever else they choose to set their sights on.
Anyway, I guess the moral of this story is: we need to stop protecting kids from the failures that will eventually lead them to REAL success. If they are given the opportunity to fail at a young age, they will better understand how to turn those failures into successes. Sometimes, it’s okay to look miserable and feel miserable if we’re able to turn that misery into something that will help us get to the next level. Finding the passion to improve and get better every day will eventually lead us to the success we so desire.
Let’s embrace that.