Column: The bronze-medal mindset helps personal growth

Winning means more than a gold medal. Sometimes it means looking at all that you’ve accomplished.
Ibtihaj Muhammad made history by being the first American athlete to compete in an Olympic event wearing a hijab. She won the bronze medal in fencing. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Abigail Ruhman is a freshman journalism major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about student life, politics and social issues for The Maneater.

In 2016, Ibtihaj Muhammad made history. As the first American athlete to compete at the Olympics wearing a hijab, Muhammad opened up a door to change the way that Muslim athletes were viewed. After she won a bronze medal, she told Time Magazine, “This is such a moment of pride and progress, and there is no going back.”

While society tends to view gold medals as a win and everything else a loss, Muhammad saw that she not only made it to the Olympics, but she made her way to the podium. While others may feel that the lack of a gold medal points to a loss, Muhammad’s bronze medal was not only a win — it was a historic win.

Muhammad and other bronze medalists showcase an important message to others: it is not what you win, but how you win — or more accurately, how you lose. This is the value in viewing your life from a bronze medalist mindset.

Society seems to crave gold medals. Angela Grippo, associate professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University, said in her article for Psychology Today the reason is because of hormones. When people win, their body experiences a spike of testosterone. This effect has been seen in everything from wrestlers to tennis players, and even chess players.

People crave gold simply for the thrill, no matter the cost. In sports, this can be referred to as the Goldman Dilemma. Robert Goldman, the author of Death in the Locker Room: Drugs and Sports, started his research with a single question: Would you take a drug that guaranteed you a gold medal, but would also kill you within five years? Approximately half of the athletes he questioned answered with an honest yes. People want to win, even when it kills them.

When people are just shy of winning, they can feel like they lost the glory of being first. William James, a famous psychologist, explained the logic of a silver medalist, “We have the paradox of a man shamed to death because he is only the second...in the world. That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing; he has 'pitted' himself to beat that one; and as long as he doesn't do that nothing else counts.”

Peter McGraw, a behavioral scientist from the University of Colorado-Boulder, in an interview with CNN referred to this thought process as counterfactual thinking, or a negative way of thinking yourself to a positive outcome. This mindset ultimately forces their focus onto the negative side rather than the positive.

For example, a silver medalist will convince themselves that it was their lack of effort that caused them to “lose.” A driver may think about what would have happened if they simply did one thing different before a crash. This mindset ultimately forces their focus onto the negative side rather than the positive, such as winning second place, or surviving a car crash.

After a race in the 2012 London Olympics, Olympic swimmer and silver medalist Ryan Lochte explained his disappointment that he was just short of gold. Brendan Hansen, the bronze medalist of the same race was quoted saying, “[I] swam my own race. And knew I had a lane, and had an opportunity, and I went for it. It worked out... it's just awesome that I get to go on the podium tonight." Hansen’s ability to look at his performance alone is a skill society should take into consideration everyday.

In addition, you can develop a growth mindset. People with growth mindsets find themselves accepting challenges because they believe that with each loss there is a lesson to be learned. They try to find motivation in something other than being at the top. People with a fixed mindset will see each loss as a roadblock and will become discouraged, causing them to give up.

Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, explained in her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” “I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves... Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character...Will I succeed or fail?... Will I feel like a winner or a loser?” The growth mindset encourages challenges and uses failure as a stepping stone to success.

When it comes to students, allowing yourself to see what you’ve accomplished is vital to academic growth. As I was studying for my exam, I found myself feeling discouraged everytime I missed something on my notecards. My friend pointed out that when I miss something I would immediately criticize myself. It built negativity into my preparation for my exam. I was failing to pay attention to the amount of information I had already memorized. The progress that I made was impressive, but I refused to see it.

Applying the bronze-medal mindset to everyday thinking provides a more productive and optimistic outlook. Stop forcing yourself to focus on where you fell short on your version of a gold medal. Try to focus on the things that you’ve accomplished so far.

Being able to focus on what you’ve accomplished is vital to your ability to find personal growth. Cultivating a bronze medal mindset can be the first step you take to focus on improving yourself, rather than feeling the need to be better than others.

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