Winning bronze may be better than gold

Posted on November 15, 2021 by James Slauterbeck, M.D.
James Slauterbeck, M.D.


Recently, I had a wonderful conversation with an NCAA Division 1 National Champion and Olympic contender, John Pearce. We spoke of his career, motivation, successes and failures. One statement stood out more than any other and that was “sometimes winning the bronze is better than winning the gold medal.” 

My first reaction was how can this be possible? Most high caliber athletes focus so much on winning the gold medal. Careers, and even people, are defined by winning the gold medal and for others, it’s the number of gold medals! But much to my surprise, I now am a believer. With a new set of lenses, winning bronze may be better than gold. 

Athletes are motivated internally and externally. Externally, they receive praise from coaches, friends, family, internet, members of the media and the list goes on. Often, the external praise motivates one to win the medal or to beak the standing record. But what happens when all the records are broken and the medals are achieved? What is left for the athlete to accomplish? Unfortunately, no medal is higher than gold! What’s next?

Internal motivation is defined by an inner drive to better oneself. These athletes focus on their body, mind and spirit to be the best they can be. Receiving medals, breaking records and achieving the win are by-products of their personal effort and laser-like focus. 

Coaches can lead athletes with both internal and external motivation. Some coaches drive external motivation by creating an environment that counts national championships and medals achieved. The coach pushes the team and the athletes to win and to win medals at all costs. Athletes fall in and out of favor based on times, speeds, strengths and accomplishments. 

Other coaches focus on their athletes’ individual talents and praise the effort the athletes put forth. The coaches find ways to focus individual effort to reach peak performance by working together selflessly and seamlessly as members of a team. By focusing and praising the team or individual effort rather than the medal count or number of wins, the individual and team continually bring their best integrated effort forward and become champions as a by-product of unsurpassed effort.

John shared that the athletes that received a bronze, or near podium finish, were more successful in their future because they were not tarnished by the external gratification and temptations inherent by achieving a gold medal. 

Lastly, he shared an interesting story about a swimmer who swam his best at an international meet and won gold. He knew he swam the best effort he could swim. The board displayed his name first and briefly won the gold medal. He got out of the pool and heard the crowd groan. His time was disqualified. However, without a single misstep or without any remorse, he headed to the cool down pool and swam. He said he was at peace because he knew he performed his best effort and that he did not perform an error. When he got out of the pool, he was met by his team and was told his disqualification was overturned. The athlete, although excited, was already at peace. He performed his best effort and recognized he accomplished all he ever wanted even without the gold.

This story highlights a few things for me. First, it is a personal comparison of motor boating verses sailing. Those in a motorboat zip to a location then enjoy their arrival. The arrival brings the excitement of swimming and enjoying the sun. But a sailor finds pleasure in the trip, which is defined by the wind, sun and sea. It is the process of the trip that excites the sailor and the location that one anchors at the end of the day is a by-product of the day’s activity. The sailor is not just looking at the reward of the end location but is motivated by the process. Secondly, John described how one’s internal motivation creates a healthy environment. It is the internal motivation to succeed that breeds success. 

Find your inner motivation and let the cards play out. Sometimes, achieving bronze establishes the process necessary to win at life’s tasks and then achieving bronze is better than the gold. 

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