What A Kentucky Derby Darkhorse Can Teach Us About Adversity

Patch, the one-eyed contender, taught us that you don't have to win a championship to be a champion.
What A Kentucky Derby Darkhorse Can Teach Us About Adversity
Image credit: Jon Durr | Eclipse Sportswire | Getty Images

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Performance Consultant, Speaker & Award-Winning Author
6 min read
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Ever since David and Goliath, people have rooted for the underdog, because underdogs capture our hearts, and because we can identify with their struggles. When you add in the filter of sports, that underdog becomes a metaphor for life, for the destination we all want -- stadium status -- and for the real possibility of a message of hope, as well.

In that context, something amazing happened last weekend, in the form of an underdog named Patch, the one-eyed horse that ran the Kentucky Derby.

While Patch didn't win the Derby -- he came in 14th -- he nonetheless provided us with a teachable moment and inspiration for the race we ourselves run every day. The lesson? How much do we really root for the underdog over the front-runners?

In Patch's case, the answer was "a lot" -- so much so that odds-makers moved the equine contender's odds of winning from 30:1 to 14:1 on Saturday, when over $2 million dollars was bet on him.

That kind of hope leads me to believe that there's a little bit of Patch in all of us. I myself coached entrepreneurs at the small college level and always gravitated to those coming from startups and those rebuilding jobs with underdog programs. Of course these people brought plenty of handicaps and challenges, especially when it came to resources and personnel. Sound familiar, entrepreneurs?

As a coach I always looked to turn that adversity into advantage. Now, I do the same with my coaching clients. I'm also trying to do the same at home with my kids.

Patch served as a great reminder of this. This horse lost his left eye due to a mysterious ailment a year ago. His trainers were concerned that that loss would have an adverse effect on his ability and confidence. Assigned to the twentieth post position, he was competing against other horses all positioned to his left -- his blind side.

In an interview with the Charlotte Observer, owner-trainer Todd Pletcher said, "We've experimented putting him in tight quarters with other horses and he's handled it better than a lot of horses with two good eyes." That observation stands to reason because, with normal sight on both sides of their heads, those horses' dual peripheral version serves them well in the wild but can be detrimental to their success on a racetrack.

The reason: They can get more easily distracted. This is why trainers place blinders on race horses' bridles, so the horses don't get distracted by what's next to or behind them, and stay focused on what's in front of them. The blinders also prevent horses from getting easily spooked.

Who would have thought a one-eyed horse would reach stadium status, right? Whether he won or not, Patch was proof that courage is more important than talent. I'll take a one-eyed horse with a lot of courage over a two-eyed horse without it because you can't put a price tag on heart and soul.

The entrepreneurial lesson for all of us isn't in the fact that he lost the derby. The lesson is that he even qualified in spite of his "disability." This applies even more so when you think about how many two-eyed thoroughbreds didn't qualify for "the most exciting two minutes in sports." Think about the old saying, "What do you call the person who finished last in their medical school class?"

Answer: "You call him (or her) 'doctor.'"

In short, you don't have to win a championship to be a champion.

Our adversity is our advantage as well.

As I've written previously, our oldest daughter, Meredith, is hard of hearing. Recently, our youngest daughter, Julia, was diagnosed ADHD. (That's my DNA at work.) Focusing at school is a challenge for her -- focusing at anything, anywhere really.

When each was first diagnosed, I worried, wondering how either was going to be successful in life. But then one day it struck me: Their adversity is actually their advantage. For Meredith with her hearing issue, when you lose one of your five senses, the others are heightened. Her acute attention to detail and vision will serve her incredibly well in life; and looking back over the past 13 years, it certainly has.

For Julia, the adversity of her attention deficit holds an equal seed of advantage. An inability to focus on following directions has made her very creative, both with problem-solving and the artistic sense. She's also curious and apt to seek new experiences, traits I've seen in myself that have been advantages over my career.

How is adversity an advantage?

UCLA psychologists Robert and Elizabeth Bjork have referred to this concept as "desirable difficulty," which means that when you make the task of learning something easier, your performance will not necessarily improve. Conversely, when you make learning more difficult, or the path to mastery more challenging, that is often when your performance will actually mprove. (Helicopter parents take note.)

In the end, everyone is fighting some kind of battle you may or may not see. It's what I call an "invisible adversity." For my kids, it's hearing loss and ADHD. For others, it takes the form of mental or physical hardships or even broken relationships. Make no mistake about it. We are all fighting a battle with something, even if we don't have the visible disability experienced by Patch with his missing eye.

We live in a world which at every turn tries to tell us we aren't good enough. Photoshop, airbrushing, auto-tune and video-editing all make the people and brands you compare yourself to look perfect, when in reality they're not. So, again, thinking of Patch is a timely reminder that success is not about what you don't have; success is something intimately tied to what you already do have.

In other words, your adversity is your advantage. Everything you need to be successful is already inside you.

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