second place sadness

No one strives for second best. Even those who know their abilities elude a podium finish never train with a second place wish. That is the most pitiful approach to training. The saddest spot on that podium is the second-place stage. Do not apply basic logic to this situation; second place should be great, much better than third, and everything else except for first, but it is not. A second place face shows no mercy.

Salty silver faces

It is a known fact that silver medalists sport a miserable look more often than their gold and bronze counterparts. They are not the best, but they are the best after just one. They are so sad.


Another sad Swede with the silver. Image credit: Getty Images

Earlier last month, there was an incident involving a silver medal rejection. The captain of the Swedish team, finishing second to Canada in the World Junior Hockey Championship, was so upset over the ordeal, that he tossed his silver medal into the crowd.  He justified this by saying, There was one guy in the stands who wanted it more than me so I decided to give it to him and I think he deserved it. Some criticized this as an act of poor sportsmanship, while others were gentler, claiming to understand this magnitude of defeat.

In case you’re wondering… A fan excitedly caught the medal, but decided to return it to the Swedish team’s trainer, believing that time heals wounds, and one day, even this dull silver will shine in the sad captain’s eyes.

Sad silver finishes aren’t limited to the sports world, and we can find countless sad faces in other fields. Beauty pageants have their fair share of second place pettiness. Singing competitions too will experience the phenomenon. Lambert unexpectedly losing the American Idol title is where we see a second place competitor muster up a stiff smile.


Lambert (left) likely doesn’t care now, as he continues to collaborate with a band called Queen. Image credit: NBC

But many of the more dramatic faces are captured in sporting events, especially in the high-stakes Olympic games.


Kim (left) wins silver with sombre fatigue in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Image credit:


Maroney (left) is unimpressed, but meme-able with her silver medal.  Sugimoto (centre) rather not smell the stench of a silver shame.  Gomez (right) eyes his gold on another man.  Image credit: Getty Images and Reuters via

Second is extra sad in hockey

Perhaps the most dramatic silvers flourish in hockey. The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver saw a stunning Canadian victory along with Crosby’s golden goal, but a poignant defeat for the Americans. American defenseman Johnson sums up the off-beat feeling well, “In any hockey event, you lose a silver medal. You don’t win it. You win a gold, and you win a bronze. You lose a silver.”

Embed from Getty Images

Can you spot the differences between the two images?

Embed from Getty Images

For those who have yet to witness this sore sight, do not worry. We will definitely see more sad second place faces in competitions to come.

“You win a gold… you lose a silver”

I remember hearing Johnson’s words in 2010 soon after the golden tussle, and thinking how dramatic and raw they were. It was a deep, drawn-out sigh fitting for such an emotionally-charged defeat.

This second place sadness is not just something I diligently observed but a well-documented and analysed event.

Psychologists Medvec, Gilovich, and Madey partially attribute this gloom to counterfactual thinking. Counterfactual thinking is when we compare objective events to hypothetical ones. For example, the second place winner is so sad because they think they could have won gold if they did something only slightly different. The third place winner, however, is happier because they feel like they clinched a podium title and evaded an obscure fourth place finish. Sure, one could apply that thinking to the second place winner and have them feel lucky to not be third, but human psychology doesn’t work that way. The researchers found that the silver medalists consistently ranked lower in happiness immediately after medal announcements and during medal ceremonies than their bronze-bound friends.

Silver medalists also smile differently. Psychologist Matsumoto and collaborator Willingham studied judo athletes in the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics and found that the silver medalists who did crack a smile on the podium did so insincerely. Facial analysis showed that gold and bronze winners were more likely to have Duchenne smiles. Duchenne smiles are considered more genuine since they involve muscles throughout the face, including those that create ‘smiling eyes.’ Silver medalists had more forced, less genuine smiles.

Who could blame them? Forced smiles are excellent at holding back tears.

Second opinions

These competitors all know how amazing it is to play at this level, for their team, and their country. Some of the reactions I’ve heard in response to the Swedish captain’s actions portray him as an ungrateful, privileged player, but I sympathize with his feelings. He wasn’t ungrateful for his opportunity, or else he wouldn’t have placed such a large burden on that silver medal. In the heat of the moment, his feelings and his expectations collided with enormous energy. As long as one doesn’t do anything dangerous, I find the dramatics understandable. Immature, but understandable. As one writer puts it, “he did something dumb in a moment of frustration, but shouldn’t be a big deal.”

It is easy to dismiss these competitors’ reactions as unnecessary, but harder to accept their struggles as valid. They are in highly pressurized and uncommon situations that provoke emotional outbursts. Instead of aimlessly berating their feelings, or your own, it is more helpful to understand how a harsh mentality can harm our responses to defeat and our productivity.

So, how to combat failure?

  1. Feel the pain: Wallow for a bit. Be safe about how you wallow and let yourself own your emotions. Repressed emotions could later damage your ability to regulate them. This would make your emotions more exaggerated and excruciating.
  2. Practice gratitude for what you have: This doesn’t mean you should ignore your pain or belittle yourself for feeling it. Simply acknowledge your strengths and understand what you can do with them from this moment onward.
  3. Acknowledge others’ abilities: Sometimes you need to accept that there are others who do things better. This can be a source of healthy pride for yourself and another in competition. Knowing what others can do can also help you do what you do better.
  4. Sharpen your skills: Find other opportunities to improve your skills. You will still find failures but each experience teaches you new ways to use your skills and unlock potential.
  5. Change: Maybe you’re in a time when you should change what you do. This is a realization that often comes after a long, heavy string of failures. Once again, this doesn’t mean giving up on your passions, but exploring different, neglected passions. Allow yourself to come back to your original passions when you want. Allow yourself to let them go too.


A second place sadness is an elite pain, reserved for those who achieve great heights in their abilities. Yet, this does not preclude them from feeling or expressing pain. Telling someone not to feel what they feel because they should be grateful harms the healing process. Instead, take the time to feel and heal. Practicing gratitude and knowing your strengths will help you stay motivated, improving your outlook and abilities.

Remember, in some circles, second is the best, because one is neither the worst nor the one with the hairy chest.

Well, at least not the worst.

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