Of trophies, ribbons, and medals

Melting into the Stacks Image by kejoli

A popular meme in parent-discussion groups is to trumpet the valuelessness of trophies, ribbons, and medals for participation in sports or the arts. The idea goes that if everyone gets one, no one earns one.

The thought is that kids need to learn that reward comes from achievement, that losses have a real impact on the outcome of a season or effort, and that the reception of a physical symbol for beating other teams (or perhaps, successfully performing to a higher standard that other performers) is meaningful/important, not rote, not cheapened by “everyone gets one.”

Old school parents trot out their memories of coaches who yelled; and practices that beat up their egos; and trophies they finally won; how worth it, it all was; and how they grew impeccable character by only being rewarded for winning.

Winning proved that all that hard work and pain was worth it! The trophy told a story: these kids were better than everyone else. Their work was more impressive at the end. Beating people and having proof in the form of a trophy produced pride: this group of boys or girls could know that they stacked up as superior people, at least in this sport.

Not so fast, schweetheart.

Spare me the lectures about how soft this generation is becoming. We need to ask the obvious question: Is winning the goal of childhood activities? Should it be?

When I was 10 years old, I joined a swim team at our tennis club. Let’s pause to appreciate that I was in a family who could afford swim team and a tennis club membership. Unlike the typical 10 year old, I was small. As in tiny. My last name was “Sweeney” and I was called “Teeny Sweeney.” The girls on this team ranged from ordinary girl to hefty. And then me.

Needless to say, in four years of competing, I never won a single race. Not one. I never even placed, unless you count “7th” or “last.” My times improved! I beat my own times repeatedly because I went to every practice and I tried hard. I had no ability to beat girls six inches taller than me, however.

I finally quit the team in 8th grade. At my last meet, I won my heat in breast stroke (first time ever)! I would get the chance to swim for a ribbon! Oh wait—the loud speaker crackled to clarity—”Julie Sweeney is disqualified for improper strokes.” My feet had come to the surface too many times. Of course. I couldn’t have beat the other girls without that advantage. I slunk away from the blocks.

The last race of my illustrious career found me swimming the third leg of a relay race. If you know swimming, that is the slowest leg. Naturally, going into the 3rd length of the pool, my team was in first place. Coming out of it, we were in 4th—thanks to my tiny body and short legs. The last swimmer had to make up for my lost time, and did, but we finished 3rd—my one and only swimming ribbon to show for four years of swim team commitment.

I remember the drive home. I felt defeated. I wondered why I had bothered to swim at all. Sure, I had loved getting into a pool in the rain, sweating in the sauna, giggling with my buddies, licking dry green jello out of the palms of my hands for energy before races, huddling under towels shivering and dripping wet cheering for each other. But what was the point? I was a terrible swimmer because—biology! I couldn’t control that. I had failed.

Everything I controlled, I did well—showing up on time, wearing the right gear, trying really hard, applying the coach’s advice, improving my speed and form, being a good teammate, taking criticism. “Nothing to show for it”—that’s how it felt.

Of course, there was a lot to show for swimming. It was good for my health and my self-discipline. It was good to be on a team where I wasn’t a star. When I was in gymnastics, I was the girl who got the good scores. In swimming, I learned humility, and what it was like to work hard even when I wasn’t talented, or a part of the “best team.” I learned to appreciate endurance sports. I became a competent swimmer—in pools, in the ocean. No small thing growing up in southern California.

I spent many happy hours in the pool, with friends, working hard, learning about my body and what it could be pressed to do beyond its natural aptitudes.

Would a pizza party and a little trophy at the end of my seasons have robbed me of those lessons? Would it have undermined how I understood achievement and accomplishment, and led me to a life of mediocrity?

Would a participation trophy have meant “nothing”?

I’d like to suggest the opposite! I might have been able to interpret my years on that team in a different light—in the light of commitment, hard work, and shared joy at my teammates’ successes and struggles. I wish someone had said, “Great having you on the team. Thanks for participating!”

Children and teens should be encouraged to participate in all kinds of sports and activities, regardless of their natural acumen and aptitude. Why should piano only be for the prodigy? Why should baseball only be played by kids with great hand-eye coordination? What good is it to reduce all the effort and learning of playing sports to success on the field or in the pool or on the balance beam?

Why should any sports team for kids be about winning, frankly?!

Winning is a happy end result when several factors are in place:

1. Parents have money to spend on the sport. In some sports, the investment is significant!

2. Parents have time to coach, and know how to do it well.

3. The team winds up with a surprising collection of naturally gifted athletes.

4. The team “gels” and they get on a win streak.

That only happens for one team per league. Literally.

Winning can’t Be Everything. For kids, it should barely BE a thing!

Our children are growing—they are discovering how their bodies work, how to play hard, how to show up when they are cranky and hungry, how to take direction and practice skills, and how to adjust to new locations, other teams, and weather. 99% of our kids will not go on with any sport in college.

If we reduce a team’s season’s success to whether or not they got more wins than all the other teams, we are saying that all that effort that went into the sport is not valued. We are forgetting to honor and recognize the achievements that will build self esteem (the real kind of self esteem that comes from team play and hard work, not the kind that comes only from being the ones who “trounced” the other teams).

It’s fine to give an “extra trophy” for winning—go ahead and make it good sized. It’s equally (perhaps more) important to also honor the season’s effort and commitment by the “losers.” Trophies and pizza seem to be doing a good job, in my opinion.

Real life says that there is room for Coke and Pepsi. Heck, there’s room for homemade sweet tea at the local diner, in addition to the big brand names. Not everything any of us does depends on a “will to win” or even “being the best.” Sometimes being “not the best” is the best choice!

In fact, being a team player who loses graciously would be a fabulous outcome of a season. We could use more adults like that.

As home educators, we give our children the gift of valuing their growth, efforts, and curiosity every day—without grades, without measurements that tell them how they stack up with other kids. We do this because we’ve come to believe that their success as people doesn’t depend on being better than others, but being the best people they can be, given their limits and talents.

Their milestones are worth celebrating. Their efforts deserve rewards and respect. Their achievements are respectable whether or not they are at the top of their field, class, grade level, or age. Why? Because their achievements are theirs.

If we teach kids to value their efforts and show them all that they learn when they participate with commitment and energy, besides “winning,” we help them become people who build their self-understanding from the inside-out (rather than outside-in). They will not be dependent on others to tell them who they are. They will have a right, sober, honest perspective of themselves that they’ve built from the myriad experiences they chose to explore that comes from self-awareness, not a Championship Trophy.

That self-understanding is worth an Extra Large Pepperoni and a little gold statue in my book. At least that.

Cross-posted on facebook

One Response to “Of trophies, ribbons, and medals”

  1. Bob Bennett says:

    I don’t think participation trophies are automatically worthless. For a child like you, that really puts in the hours and the time and the heart, a little recognition goes a long way! But each child is different and for some a participation trophy isn’t deserved—what about the kids that only come to half the practices? Like most things it’s a grey situation.