If you aint first, you're last

BY Adam Clark

Ricky: Hey, all those races I won, that was for you. You know that? I did just like you told me. If you aint first, you’re last.

Reese: What the hell are you talkin’ about?

Ricky: What you told me that day at school for career day.

Reese: (looking lost)

Ricky: You came in and you said, “If you aint first, you’re last.”

Reese: Oh hell Ricky, I was high when I said that! I mean that doesn’t make any sense at all. If you aint first, you’re last? You can be second. You can be third; forth. Hell, you can even be fifth!

Ricky: What are you talkin’ about?! I lived my whole life based on that! (pauses) Well now what the hell am I supposed to do?

Reese: Well that’s the million dollar question isn’t it? (pauses) Good luck to you son. (walks away)

When Will Ferrell says anything it sounds funny. The man doesn’t have a serious voice. ‘If you aint first, you’re last,’ uttered by Will’s iconic character Ricky Bobby seems instantly preposterous. From the first time he said it in the movie Talladega Nights, most of us realized how nonsensical the statement really is.  I say ‘most’ because I believe that most of the people I know realize that there is more to life than winning, that winning isn’t everything, and that there are certainly varying degrees of success.

For professional athletes however, (those people whose profession is being an athlete) this can often be a hard distinction. The goal of many professions is proficiency in a specific skill set and, while this is also true for athletes, the goal of professional athletics is to win. That’s why we play the game. We are selected, evaluated, and ranked based on our ability to win or to help the team win. In a professional sense winning is everything and there is a very clear distinction between first place and every other place. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that for many athletes it becomes difficult to separate their worth as a professional (an athlete) and their worth as a person.

One example of this which sticks out vividly in my mind occurred during a bobsled race my rookie season. After recording a start on our first run which was admittedly slower than we had expected my teammates were furious. They described the start as, “pathetic,” and one said that he was, “embarrassed,” by it. Calling the start pathetic is understandable. Pathetic is a judgment of the quality of the performance, a harsh judgment, but a judgment none the less. Being embarrassed by the performance on the other hand implies that the athlete feels somehow shameful about the performance and indicates a direct connection with self-worth.

It has been my experience in athletics that more often than not this is the case. Athletes feel their performance is tied to who they are at a deep level. If they perform well they feel good about themselves but if they fail to perform up to expectations then they feel somehow less valuable as people. This is why ‘morale’ is such a big issue at coaching clinics across the nation. I heard this over and over playing college football, “What can we do to keep morale high?” What coaches really meant is, “How can we keep athletes feeling good about themselves as we traverse the inevitable ups and downs that come with any season?”

Truth be told, there are many, many more failures in sport than there are victories. In bobsled there will only be four athletes who will win Gold in the 4-man bobsled event at this year’s Olympic Games. Four! Every other athlete in the entire sport of bobsled will fall short of that mark. It’s the same in every sport. Of all the athletes involved in a sport, only a select few will even make it to the pinnacle of their sport (the NFL, the NBA, the Olympics, etc.), and out of that small number only a fraction will ever win a championship. Coaches know this and they’re actively developing strategies to deal with it. My question, and what I want to address here, is what can we do as athletes to help ourselves avoid these pitfalls and keep performing at our best throughout a season, a career, and beyond that.

A good place to start, I think, is with how we define success. In general if you ask an athlete what success is they will say, “Winning.” Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines success as a favorable or desired outcome: the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence. Neither of these definitions really helps the situation at all. Both are focused on the achievement and not the effort. The great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden came up with his own definition of success which I think hits the nail squarely on the head. Take a minute to consider the definition and video below and see if you agree or disagree with how and why Coach Wooden came to define success as:

“Peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing that you made the effort to do the best of which you were capable.” 

I believe that what Coach Wooden said is true. I believe that if we focus on things which are out of our control it will adversely affect our ability to perform to our best. I believe that an athlete, or a person, knows when they have truly given their best (and when they haven’t) and when they have there is nothing more that they can do. I believe we must have faith that things will work out as they should, providing we do what we should and we must have the patience to wait for that. And I believe that winning is not a product of trying to win but rather a by-product of doing things the right way over and over throughout a season and a career. If the goal of an athlete (or team) is doing things the right way then success will follow on its own.  

I have learned through a career in athletics that there are far more times when we will give our best yet fall short rather than achieving the desired outcome, and while we must never cease in our pursuit of excellence, we must also take time to enjoy the self-satisfaction gained from the knowledge that we made the effort to do the best of which we were capable for that is true success.

“For who can ask more of a man,

than giving all within his span.

Giving all it seems to me,

is not that far from victory.”

-Joseph Moriarty


Important Notes From the video:

00:47 – We are all unique in size, intelligence, and appearance. We each have unique gifts.

02:35 – 3 rules on guiding your ambitions

02:52 – Thy Best poem

03:09 – Definition of Success

03:28 – Character and reputation

09:01 – Pyramid of Success

09:25 – Faith and Patience

10:53 – The Road Ahead, And The Road Behind poem

11:58 – Don’t whine, Don’t complain, Don’t make excuses

12:35 – When a game is over you shouldn’t be able to tell by looking at the players which team won

13:10 – The score of a game should be the by-product of doing things right and not the end itself

Adam Clark submitted his athlete profile on the recruitment webpage at the suggestion of a friend and was invited to attend rookie camp in March 2011.  He previously played football and ran track at Centre College in Danville, Ky., where he earned all-conference honors in both sports.  Clark graduated from Centre College in 2007 with a B.S. in Physics and then earned a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Kentucky in 2009. Clark enjoys spending time with his friends going hiking, biking, rock climbing or "half a dozen other random sports."  His favorite food is his wife Ashley's meatloaf, favorite music is a mix of rock, hip hop and country, and favorite location is home on the farm. Learn more about Clark by following @centreslider on Twitter.