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Winning is wonderful.

When we work hard, do our very best at a competitive thing, the thing goes really well, and we are the winners, oh wow, does that feel good. That pre-imagined happy ending that we’d been dreaming about just played out in reality and got written down in permanent ink, punctuated with a confident period telling us that this ending is fixed. Often it doesn’t just feel good, it feels right. This story went the way it was supposed to go.

I’ve mused before about how much we humans love thinking of our lives as a story, how we preemptively write happy endings to all our personal story arcs. In that post, I was thinking more in terms of a broader binary of things going well versus things going not-well. But a different flavour of hard is when the two binary storylines are nearly identical until the very end result. When we work hard, do our very best at a competitive thing, the thing goes really well, and. . .we come in second place. . ? That is a complicated space for our heads and hearts to be in.

The whole cultural message of “win or it doesn’t matter” is a pervasive one, and it’s not a new phenomenon. I was a teenager in the ’90s, and I remember so many of my peers wearing No Fear t-shirts. Remember those, fellow ’80s and ’90s kids? There we were, in our self-conscious, vulnerable teen years, with our prefrontal cortices still not fully-formed, watching one another stride around the high school hallways wearing shirts plastered with slogans like:




Each statement featuring that confident period telling us that this ending is fixed.

When I think of No Fear shirts, it’s that last one in particular that springs to my mind. Maybe because it so closely echoes another infamous cultural touchstone of the mid-’90s, this Nike Air ad. Like those t-shirts, the ad keeps its message short and punchy with just seven words. “You don’t win silver. You lose gold.”

I feel like I could write thousands of words about all the ways that this mindset is harmful, and how it absolutely hijacks the healthy ways that we think about ourselves, about others, and about what success and failure look like. I know all these things on a deep level, and I can articulate them ‘til the cows come home.


When you live it, it sure feels different.

My youngest daughter has been part of a very skilled, very successful cheer team for the past few years. Those of you who have been a part of the world of competitive cheer will know that it’s a very intense, high-energy, high-skill, high-expectation world. Part of my daughter’s cheer gym’s collective motto this year was “Leave your heart on the floor,” and do they ever.

This year her team, Scarlet, nabbed first place in their opening competition, then first place in their second competition. Then second place, second place, second place in the next three. One competition was left – Nationals.

They performed absolutely brilliantly at Nationals, and their routine had a high degree of complexity that would serve them well in scoring. The team stood huddled in their circle at the awards ceremony, and other teams in their division sat down one a time as their names were called by the emcee awarding fifth place, fourth place, third place.

Two teams were left in their huddles – 50 nervous girls in their early teens stomped out a drum-roll on the stage. Second place goes to… SCARLET! Cheers and hugs as the emcee officially shouted out the name of the first place team – ENVY!!

The Envy athletes received their gold medals and their National Champion sweatshirts. Oh, how I had wanted that moment, that sweatshirt, that wild wild rush of adrenaline and dopamine for my daughter. If I’m honest, I wanted it for myself as well. Mom of the champion; why yes, that’s ME! The irony that “Envy” had won was not lost on me, and the irony served as a decent heart-check for me as I processed the tumultuous emotions of the weekend that had been distilled into that one awards-ceremony moment.

My husband and I consciously avoided trying to soothe our daughter with statements like, “That wasn’t fair,” or, “I don’t know what the judges were thinking,” or, possibly worst of all, “You guys totally should have won.”

If I were to hug my daughter and murmur into her ear, “This isn’t right; you deserved to win,” what I would be telling her is that our pre-imagined happy ending was the way it was supposed to go. That she deserved that gold medal – it was destined to be hers – and the world cheated her of it.

These feel like easy go-to consolation phrases, and might bring that temporary dopamine hit of comfort and solidarity, but really they’re just the subtle flip-side of the same self-aggrandizing ick in those No Fear slogans. And in the end, they accomplish much of the same character damage.

To their credit, the athletes on Scarlet had genuine strength in their sportsmanship. Of course they had all envisioned that golden moment, but their maturity and graciousness – and their joy in coming in second in the whole country for their division – were as evident as their jaw-dropping stunts. And as a parent, I’m really glad that I didn’t have to carefully unravel any anger or entitlement – I just had to intentionally put words to the genuine, meaningful celebration that they totally did deserve.

I think many of us can think of times in our lives where we had worked hard with that golden goal in mind, and in the end had to hear our name called for second place. Or third place. Or we missed the podium altogether. We hear the name called for first place and all we can hear is ENVY. Goodness knows that many of us will have moments like these ahead of us.

My hope for all of us is that we have good people around us who will speak truth and encouragement to us in those moments, and that the reactions that form in our own hearts will lean intentionally into joy and away from bitter entitlement.

Sophia, my girl. You trained, you competed, you gave it your all, and you did so well. Your good work shone through not only in your performance, but in your attitude, and I’m so proud to have witnessed that. Second place is well worth celebrating, and I’m glad you know it.

Kathryn Vilela

Kathryn Vilela lives in Kingston, Ontario, and is an enthusiastic amateur in many areas, including writing, theology, art, singing, Portuguese cooking, and being a mom. Kathryn is happiest when she’s in the middle of a good book, a good conversation, or a good hike through the forest.


  • Jack Ridl says:

    I can’t possibly sufficiently thank you! See? Even in thanking I assume I fall short. My father was a basketball coach, Division 3 and Division 1. He was featured in Sports Illustrated. “But you never won it all.” He taught me how to watch the game and never be a fan. A team can be behind by 30 and I’m watching to see what happens next. When a game ends I think only of the consequences on the losing coach’s family caused by fans, boosters, sports writers.

  • David Landegent says:

    Great perspectives. I hardly ever participated in organized sports myself, so I probably have a jaded view (though I love to play any game that involves hitting something over a net). I have for a long time regarded the sports dynamic as this: one wins and everyone else loses. The gospel though brings the reverse: One loses so everyone can win.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    I coached high school baseball and football, j.v. level, and finished out my coaching career with varsity track. We tried to instill the mantra “for love of the game”– and to respect the efforts of rivals—but a hard sell. Track was a bit different —at that point I myself was running, all distances, with marathons the ultimate challenge— and my coaching point was for my athletes to do “equal or better” than their previous attempts/times. Run the race; finish the course; encourage one another, congratulate all. Intense competition, but less of the win/lose issue.

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