First place is for quitters

Ryan Shiver is an extraordinary athlete: He's quick, he's strong and his kinesthetic intelligence borders on genius. Ryan enrolled at Asheville School as a junior the same year I was put in charge of our wrestling team. My first year of coaching and I’m handed the kind of kid most coaches wait their whole career for.

The first half of the season, Ryan cruised through the local competition, from public and private schools alike. In fact, the matches rarely made it out of the first period: He was pinning his competitors before they knew what hit them.

Ryan's a big guy — 6 feet, 240 pounds — but that put him in the heavyweight class, against opponents who were pushing the 285 pound limit. Still, Ryan was unstoppable. On one noted occasion, the opposition forfeited rather than face him (the other guy had an undefeated record that he didn't want to risk). Returning from Christmas break, Ryan competed in the Holy Angels Tournament in Charlotte, featuring some of the top talent in the state. He dispatched the second-place finisher in a mere 42 seconds.

Ryan's wins have been well-documented; the Asheville Citizen-Times has run a half-dozen articles on him. What’s received less attention are the few times he's lost. The spotlight follows the best, not the one who’s bested. A week after Ryan came in an easy first at the North Carolina State Tournament, we went to the National Prep Wrestling Tournament in Lehigh, Pa. He dispatched his first-round competitor easily, but then he ran into a wall named Viktor Pedchenko — a black belt in judo who looked like he might be related to Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. When they shook hands before the match, I could almost hear Pedchenko whisper, "I will break you."

Ryan lost, quickly but well. It was his toughest fight and hardest effort so far. Still, Pedchenko won, and it wasn't a fluke. If they'd wrestled 10 times, Pedchenko would probably have won them all: He was simply the better wrestler that day. Pedchenko, by the way, didn't finish first either. He lost to the guy who lost to the guy who lost to the guy who came out on top.

To some, Ryan's ending such a successful season with a loss might seem somehow unfair. But my father taught me something a long time ago that’s pertinent here: In any given sport, at season’s end, only one competitor finishes with an honest win. Everyone else gives up before they face genuine competition. Crazy as it may seem, most first-place finishers are quitters. Like the competitor who forfeited to Ryan early on, they're more focused on the appearance of winning than on actually accomplishing something.

If you're only interested in winning, pick a fight with a pacifist, get in an argument with an idiot, or steal candy from a baby. Better yet, open a casino: The house always wins. But if you want to improve, race someone faster than you, play chess against someone rated higher than you, or try bench-pressing a weight you can't handle. We become stronger in the long term by becoming weaker in the short term.

This isn't just folksy philosophy: It's wisdom that too many of us have forgotten, and it’s not limited to athletics. Today we're caught up in building confidence and setting up our young people for success; we give ribbons to all participants and hold graduation ceremonies for kindergarteners. But where has it gotten us? We're creating a culture that’s both overconfident and undercompetent.

Consequently, while the best are better than they've ever been, the average is the worst in history. In the last 40 years, the best marathon times have dropped by 15 minutes, while the average American has put on 30 pounds of fat; our brightest have made startling scientific achievements, while the average American has poorer math skills than ever. Most of us have become like Theodore Roosevelt's “cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

We need to stop setting ourselves up for success and start seeking some honest defeats. Strength may lead to wins, but it's born out of losses.

Ryan Shiver’s early season wins looked easy because he’d already done the hard work. Ryan failed more times than those who never won a single match: He just got those failures out of the way during practice, in the weight room or at training camps. His wins were built on those defeats, just as his future wins will be founded on his loss at the Nationals. That's what makes Ryan a true champion.

— Christopher Arbor, the wrestling coach at Asheville School, is the author of the short-story collection “Static to Signal.”

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