At the end of recess last Friday, I blew the line-up whistle. The scramble began. It took only one child switching from walk to run and then the pandemic spread. In an instant I had twelve students dashing across the playground to be first.

Several boys showed remarkable cutting skills, slicing in front of their classmates from the side or doing the tried and true shove-and-cut. I sent the daredevil dozen back across the yard and told them to try again,

“Walk all the way this time.”

First place in line. First picked for kickball. First in the door. Coming in first, even in small ways, matters. Kids get this fact even if no one tells them so. So, the scramble for first is a matter of instinct, linked to the need to survive.

The more you come in first, the better you are thought to be. Fastest, smartest, strongest, most popular, most resourceful, and even meanest – all of these get their own forms of medals. Two recent examples reinforced this common perception:

Yesterday, a group of fifth graders in the after school program got invited to a pick-up soccer game with a school down the hill. Even before this no-stakes match, one of my students mentioned a boy named Enrique. He knew of him from the weekend league and the same name had come up in the parents’ pre-game chatter.

I decided to watch the game.

“Mark him,” I heard our coach say as the game started. I knew who he meant. Sure enough, the kid was fast. In a bit of a twist, the number 2 was embossed on his game jersey. And he was skilled! He dribbled the ball around the fullbacks, took out our players with slide tackles. We didn’t have a chance.

His team won, 5 to 0. For this ten year-old, the scorecard no one kept would have held all of the required information.

So, what’s this first-at-all-costs thing about when you break it down? What if the hunger for first place came from the fear of getting left behind. What if someone suggested that the long (and better) game was in learning how to navigate second? Who would buy that?

My guys, led by a serious and sweaty ten year-old named Benjamin, made the losers walk up the hill. All of our guys were quiet. “You guys did great.” No comment. “You all never played as a team before.” Silence. “We’ll do a re-match next week.”

“I don’t care about losing.” Benjamin spoke. “I just don’t like Enrique. I hate it when he plays on the weekend, too, and he’s on my team. He has to be first in everything.”

Second isn’t such a bad place to be. You get to learn about yourself when you have to endure a loss. You grow when you reach for the top but miss.

I want my kids to be civil. I ask them to pick up their fallen teammates and I teach them to say sorry when they are wrong. I am asking them to acquire the grace of second-place. I will bet that when they come back a second time, they are wiser, more intuitive, and maybe even more valuable to the rest of us.

May I suggest we celebrate second place, too? Victory comes from ruling over inside voices that tell us we’re not good enough if we’re not first. Think of the strength you need to get up, move on, be second and be strong!


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3 Responses to Second

  1. Bob October 15, 2013 at 8:28 pm #

    As always, a thoughtful and thought-provoking column. But while I can identify with the issue, both personally and as a parent, I disagree with your take on the topic.

    First place is indeed different from second. While your points are reassuring to grade-schoolers, the reality is that most of us are rarely rewarded for coming in second – or “first loser”, as kids often describe it. Except in professional sports, where second place may still carry a handsome financial reward, we rarely remember who came in second. I was reminded of this when Adrienne cycled competitively – she took little solace in coming in second, and mined each loss for the training nuggets that would put her first. When I competed for work in the business world, there was no more than thank you and a hand shake for those firms who failed to win an assignment. After a few weeks living in LA and working hard just to establish a presence in the market, I announced that we had failed to land a job, but was encouraged that the client had rated us a strong second. I’ll never forget the unforgiving stare and withering comment I received from my director after my naïve attempt to spin the loss. Closer to the present, Jackie knows the value in coming in second when competing for a job. I’m sure she’ll tell you that second is a position she has no wish to sustain.

    As you say, there are voices within (and without) that proclaim that second says you were not good enough. The secret to silencing these voices is to understand that you were not good enough in that specific situation, and that it doesn’t mean you won’t be good enough in the future if you change those attributes that put you second. Most people, at any age, will bounce back from second. Young people, especially, need to learn not that coming in second is OK, but that there are things they can do to rise above second place, or perhaps to cope with being second. I would be disappointed in an educational system that sacrificed high standards to encourage an ethos that kowtows to less than best.

    Second place neither requires nor deserves the “unbridled celebration” you suggest. What deserves celebration is the discipline, intention, focus and plain hard work that go into coming first. As salesman and speaker Zig Ziglar said, “Winning isn’t everything, but the effort to win is.” I’m uncomfortable with the idea that we should teach young people to “release the need to be first.” Yes, we need to recognise and even reward the fact of participation, but the world is a competitive place. At some age we need, in our conversation with young people, to instil that concept. Let’s not give up on “first”.


  2. Anonymous June 24, 2014 at 9:06 am #

    I find so much more freedom being “anything but first.” You can only go down after first. And it takes a lot of energy to maintain being first.

    Flying under the radar, one finds creativity and delightful surprises. Yet knowing this, I still cannot deny my insatiable desire to win!

  3. Sylvaine June 24, 2014 at 9:47 am #

    Very cool article Greg…. Thank you.

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