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Finishing Second is Still an Accomplishment, isn’t It?

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(Minneapolis, MN, 02/04/18) New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady gets stripped sacked during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LII against the Philadelphia Eagles at the U.S. Bank Stadium on Monday, April 02, 2018. Boston Herald Staff photo by Matt Stone

Following the most recent Super Bowl, several sports pundits including Fox Sports’ Cris Carter commented on the issue of Tom Brady’s legacy by saying it was diminished because of the recent loss in Minneapolis. The logic of the argument was simple: 5 wins and 2 losses has a higher winning percentage than 5 wins and 3 losses, so it must be better. This is the same logic people often use to say that Joe Montana (four Super Bowl wins and no losses) was a better quarterback than Tom Brady.

I will say upfront that I am not a Patriots fan or the fan of any other sports team. I do watch American football occasionally and at least know who people like Cam Newton and Aaron Rogers are but the outcomes of games don’t matter to me in the least. What got me thinking about this issue was a conversation I overheard in the airport between an American father and his young son. The father was taking the same line of reasoning Carter was, saying Tom Brady had embarrassed himself by losing the game and decreasing his winning percentage. The more I thought about it, however, the more I started to believe this was a very bad message to be sending to a child.

In professional sports, it is true the ultimate goal is to win a championship. Everyone wants to be the best, to win that ring or gold medal. But is a silver medal really so bad? I would have to argue “no”. You still proved you were the second best by beating everyone else. Surely that is something to be proud of and celebrated?

Let us say, for argument’s sake, that winning the Super Bowl is like winning a gold medal and that winning an AFC or NFC championship is like winning a silver medal. I think all of us can agree that it is still better for a country or team to win 5 golds and 3 silvers instead of just 5 golds and 2 silvers. Yet, when people talk about Tom Brady’s Super Bowl record, this logic doesn’t seem to apply: it seems not having the extra silver is somehow better.

As an educator, this reasoning concerns me the most when it is conveyed to children. It suggests that finishing second or third in a tournament might actually be worse than falling out in qualifiers. How is a child to interpret this? Is it better to lose on purpose early and avoid losing in the final?

The mentality of anything other than first place being a failure has been especially prevalent in the country where I teach: South Korea. Here, parents are rarely satisfied when their children finish second or third. This cultural pressure is one of the reasons why Korea has the highest youth suicide rate in the world along with one of the highest youth depression rates.

Dear parents, please let your children know it’s ok to be second.

By Justin Fendos, Ph.D.

Dr. Justin Fendos is a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea and the associate director of the Tan School at Fudan University in Shanghai. He conducts research on a wide range of topics including East Asian culture and education psychology. He is a regular contributor for the Korea Herald and The Diplomat.

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