Mind matters: Finishing second

British rower Annie Vernon recently wrote a book in which she described the agony of her team finishing second in the Beijing Olympics.

She wanted and expected a gold medal and ended up with silver.

Her story reminds me of the brother of one of my high school friends.

The brother studied hard for four years at the Air Force Academy and finished second in his class.

When I heard that, I thought that any finish would be better than second.

I mentioned the brother story to a friend of mine, and she told me that when she finished fifth in the NSW HSC in mathematics, she felt devastated. She knew exactly the two problems she missed.

She stayed distraught for a few days, until she started to receive accolades from her school for finishing so high.

Then she started to look at her finish in a different way: She had outperformed 33,000 other students.

The idea of finishing second makes some people think of Aliy Zirkle. She is a woman who loves sled dogs. For years she entered the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska.

The racers traverse 1600km over rough terrain in stages, sometimes going all night. Year after year she finished second, wondering whether she would ever win.

In 2016, something different happened. One night as Aliy was racing, with a powerful light on her helmet, a man on a snowmobile ran into her from behind and sent her and her dogs flying. He then turned around and tried again and again to run her down.

No, it was not her husband. It was a random drunken madman. The experience pushed her into post-traumatic stress disorder. There certainly are things in life worse than finishing second.

I once finished second in a tennis tournament when I was a teen. It was club tournament that I had won a few months before. I again played well and made it in to the finals.

Then the tournament director told me that I was ineligible to play in the tournament because I had won it once. He apologised for not telling me before I entered.

I still played the championship match. My opponent, an old guy, played his heart out and barely beat me. He looked happy, and he bought me a soft drink after we finished.

I felt mostly glad that he had won. Sometimes second is a fine place to finish.

John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, University of New England.