When you look at competition results, there are several acronyms that you might see next to athletes’ names, such as DNQ (did not qualify), DNF (did not finish), and WD (withdrew). But there’s also an unofficial acronym, and it represents a placement that most competitors will experience at least once in their careers. That acronym is DFL – dead f***ing last.
In the “winning is everything” ethos of competing, DFLing is something to be ashamed of, to avoid, to move on from. We assume that the DFLer choked, or didn’t train hard enough, or shouldn’t have entered the event in the first place. Sometimes we celebrate DFLers for their persistence and determination, like ski jumper Eddie the Eagle at the 1988 Winter Olympics. But more often than not DFLing is an embarrassment, and the only response that’s considered appropriate from the DFLer is either to quit competing or to work extra hard so as not to finish last again.
However, there’s another way to think about DFLs. As described in a recent article by runner Lauren Fleshman, a DFL placing can turn out to be a positive experience for a competitor. While this might seem counter-intuitive, it actually makes a lot of sense; as Fleshman says, “it takes a lot of courage to run a sucky race.” Fleshman’s own DFL happened at a very high-profile event: the competition to determine the American entries in the women’s 5000-meter race at the 2012 Summer Olympics. This competition was Fleshman’s fourth attempt to qualify for the Olympics – but because of a persistent injury and the resulting lack of training, she knew she was going to DFL in either the preliminary race or the final (if she got that far).
Here’s how Fleshman made lemonade out of DFL lemons:
- While she admitted “feeling sorry for myself in advance because I believed shame was coming”, she also reminded herself that “trying matters, regardless of the outcome….and fighting well with what you have is enough”.
- She remembered that she had done well in other competitions in order to qualify for the Olympic trials, which helped her acknowledge that qualifying was an accomplishment in itself.
- She wrote a post on her blog telling her fans what was going on, and promising to give them a wink before her first race if they cupped their hands to make a letter “C” (for “courage”). As she came up to the starting line, “more and more people held up their hands….and random individuals [were] coming to their feet. They weren’t yelling, they were standing in solidarity, and I filled up so full I began to spill over…When I charged into sixth place….the crowd roared as if I had won”.
- Her sixth-place finish in the preliminary race qualified her for the final race three days later. “I knew winning for me [in that race] meant finishing. With 200 meters to go, I was the only one still running….and that’s when the clapping started. ‘So this is what a pity clap feels like’, I thought, as my body clambered along ungracefully toward the finish, which finally I crossed with a mixture of relief and gratitude. But I didn’t hear pity in the sound, and I never will again.”
Although I certainly don’t compete in my sport at the elite level that Fleshman does in hers, her perspective resonated with me. In adult skating, DFLing is fairly common – for the simple reason that there aren’t that many competitive adult skaters. So categories at skating events subdivided by age and skill level usually result in small groups of competitors. It’s very easy to DFL even with a really good skate, and it’s also not at all uncommon to DFL and to win a medal. And believe me, people’s reaction to “I won a medal” is very different from their reaction to “I placed last”, even when both are true.
DFLing is something I really struggle with as a competitor, especially when I went through a phase of competitions where it seemed that the only place I ever finished was last. Even when I was happy with my performance, and even when my competitors were justifiably placed ahead of me, it was still very frustrating to DFL over and over – even more so when I knew that my skills were improving. In some sports, finishing fourth is called “winning the potato medal”, because of the heavy feeling you get in your stomach from just missing out on a medal. But at many competitions I would have happily accepted the potato medal rather than to DFL yet again.
Obviously, I still would prefer not to finish last at a competition. But like Fleshman, my perspective on DFLing has evolved. When I competed at the 2014 Canadian adult figure skating championships, I knew I was going to DFL in both events I entered. I knew most of the people I would be competing against, and I knew that they could all beat me – and that reality was definitely discouraging. But, on the other hand, I truly loved both of my competitive programs and felt very confident performing them. And I was definitely a better skater than I was the year before, when I missed a lot of training because of work, and when I had an inner ear problem that made it impossible to skate for a while. So I went, I DFLed (although I won a silver medal in one event), and I had one of my best competitions ever.
What also helped me think differently about DFLing was a conversation with my coach after that competition. I told him I was ambivalent about saying I won a medal but not also saying that I finished last. I felt that I wasn’t being honest if I didn’t say both things, even if the part about DFLing might make people take my medal-winning less seriously. His very wise response was, “You know what? You didn’t earn the medal just for signing up. You had to go out there and perform to get it.” Of course, as always, he’s right. As Fleshman says, fighting well with what you have is enough. And remembering that can help us in almost anything we do.