Every couple of years, my family engages in two week of binge watching the Olympic Games. For months we countdown the days to the Opening Ceremony. We clear our calendar in order to spend time watching sports to which we pay no attention in the intervening years. We buy patriotic apparel, glow sticks and flags for our kids and find ourselves glued to the television each night. My wife Jenny is Canadian, and I am American, so our two young daughters cheer wildly every time an athlete from either nation competes.

Every time the flame is lit inaugurating a new iteration of the Olympics Games we encounter a flood of incredible stories. The height of emotion and intensity of competition reveals so much about the human spirit and the character of the individuals involved. We see the raw emotion of humanity on display in all its beauty, complexity and vulnerability.

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

As the 2018 Olympic in Pyeongchang wrap up this weekend, we have been treated to a new collection of stories that will be added to canon of amazing Olympic moments. Perhaps none are as engaging as the story of German Madrazo, the 43 year old cross-country skier representing Mexico. Madrazo, who had never skied prior to last year, spent the past 12 months criss-crossing the globe, learning to ski and entering races in what seemed an absurd attempt to qualify for the Olympics. However, in Iceland, at the very last qualifier event, Madrazo performed well enough to qualify for the 15km race.

A Last Place Victor: On race day in Pyeongchang, Madrazo predictably fell behind the top athletes. Swiss phenom Dario Cologna crossed the line first, in 33 minutes and 43 seconds, earning his 3rd consecutive gold medal in the event. Madrazo on the other hand, approached the finish 25 minutes later, in 119th place. He was the very last competitor to cross the line. And yet, as this video shows, he was treated with a hero’s welcome. Flag in hand, he was hoisted on the shoulders of fellow competitors and he was carried around like the victor. Cologna even showed up to congratulate Madrazo. Click here for more pictures of Madrazo’s epic moment!

Madrazo was not celebrated for being the best. He was celebrated for his attitude, work ethic and commitment to complete what he set out to accomplish. The joy on his face and the emotion he brought out in those who experienced this moment will endure for a long, long time.

A Medal Winning Disappointment: However, as we all know, not all moments at the Olympics are filled with such euphoric joy. Many competitors finish much higher than last and find themselves overcome with intense grief. This has perhaps been most potently on display, during the award ceremony. Periodically we catch glimpses of some silver medalists as they step onto the second tier of the medal podium. While the gold medalist is characterized by unbridled joy, the second place finishers often struggle to maintain their composure. Tears of joy and tears of sadness often flow side by side in these moments. An example of the frustration that silver medalists sometime face was on display Thursday night as Jocelyn Larocque, a hockey player on the Canadian team, took off her medal during the ceremony in frustration over her team’s failure to win the gold. Larocque later apologized, acknowledging that “my emotions got the better of me.”

How can a last place finisher cross the line in triumph, while those who are crowned second best in the entire world often struggle?

Counterfactual Thinking: Psychologist Neal Roese suggests a theory that can help us understand this dichotomy. In Psychological Bulletin he wrote about a concept know as counterfactuals. Roese explains that counterfactuals are “mental representations of alternatives to the past.” Humans have a tendency to develop in their minds, different scenarios of what could have happened to help them navigate difficult situations in life. Essentially, when presented with a less then ideal result, we can imagine either a worse or better outcome.

While many factors go into how we process our situations, they type of counterfactual thinking we allow, will determines our emotional response to reality. Madrazo’ s counterfactual alternative, was that he might not have even made it to Pyeongchang, and therefore crossing the finish line was an incredible victory. Conversely, the margin between a gold and silver medal performance is often mere hundredths of a second. The second place finisher can easily slip into counterfactual thinking that imagines where they could have performed better in order to have won. The result of that kind of thinking can lead to an inability to appreciate the triumph they have in fact achieved. Checkout this video for visual explanation of this phenomenon.

We all face disappointing moments in life on a regular basis. Fortunately, these moments are not typically on display for a globally audience of millions. However, our response will impact both how others perceive us, and the future we allow ourselves to step into. When crisis or challenges hit us, our mind will naturally go to counterfactual thinking. There are essentially two questions we can ask in these counterfactual moments, and they determine our trajectory.

Two Counterfactual Questions:

  • What could have gone worse?
  • What could have gone better?

In the moment of crisis, the first question positions us to positively accept, and even celebrate reality. For Madrazo the answer to that question, was that he could have failed to qualify all together. Taking this approach puts things in a manageable perspective.

This is not to suggest that we should never ask the second question. The second question, “What could have gone better?”, is one of the best ways to learn from challenging situations. However, in the moments of heightened emotions that occur around disappointment, this question is often not helpful. It can drive us deeper into the disappointment we are attempting to process. If we force ourselves to ask the first question in the moment of crisis and save the second question for reflection and learning after the emotions have faded, we position ourselves to handle the difficulty well. We also give ourselves the opportunity to learn from the experience at a more optimum time.

Your Thoughts? The next time a stressful situation enters your life… how will you you respond? I would love to hear your thoughts on this. If you have suggestions or strategies for handling difficult moments well, leave a comment with some wisdom below.

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