In the fourth grade, which was an impressive and vaguely depressing 23 years ago, my class was spending a week doing show and tell. I'm sure this was supposed to help with public speaking and encourage class camaraderie, yet all I could focus on was what I was going to bring. Other kids may have labored over what special toy or memento they were going to take to class, but I knew immediately what prized possession would be presented: my participation trophies and medals. Of course, I didn't call them that at the time.
Tacking on the phrase "participation" is a favorite of modern pundits, used in hopes of deprecating snowflakes, millennials, and anyone else they consider soft. As a millennial, albeit an old one, I'm disinclined to believe that trophies and medals somehow ruined our society. In fact, I would argue that they are helpful; at least, they were with me.
Designed to encourage kids from struggling communities to feel better about themselves and participate in sports, participation trophies and ribbons had a massive boost in the '80s and are ubiquitous today.
When I was about 5 years old, my stepmother encouraged my dad to sign me up for soccer. I had never played sports before, unless you count ultracompetitive Candyland, and I would say that my first season of soccer wasn't super successful. I spent a large amount of time practicing handstands in the field, making daisy chains, and playing patty cake. My favorite part was the after-game Kool-Aid and orange slices, and I did score a goal, but like all great athletes it was for the other team.
Still, at the end of my season, despite not doing anything remarkable, I was presented with a medal. The ribbon was red, white, and blue (natch) and the fake-gold medal was embossed with a soccer ball surrounded by laurel leaves. I can still remember how it felt as I would run my fingers over the relief and how heavy it was. I loved it and as soon as I got home I had to find a place for it to be properly displayed.
My stepsisters were older, and thus so cool that I wanted to be like them. I would spend hours staring at their trophies that were mounted in the living room. Some of them were huge, practically half of my 5-year-old self, but all of them looked beautiful. I liked how strong and powerful the statue-athletes looked, as if these plastic people could accomplish anything. Those coveted statues and my tiny medal were enough encouragement for me to try T-ball in the Spring.
Over the years, I consistently played soccer, T-ball, tennis, and basketball, and ran track, all to varying degrees of success. In high school, my participation trophies got subbed out for a letterman's jacket, which I wore with so much obnoxious pride it was a little silly. My own trophy shelf was full and I had developed a love of sports, something that as a bookish girl I wasn't likely to explore on my own.
Working on a foundation of a lifetime of sports, as an adult I run consistently and enjoy rock climbing and yoga. For the past 27 years, I can honestly say that I've made sports, exercise, and health a valued part of my life.
This should be not just supported but also rewarded.
Some people love to admonish trophies and anything that acknowledges participation. However, it's not just showing up that we are rewarding. At a young age, we are expecting that a child is able to show up to games and practices, follow the instructions of a new adult, cooperate and play with others, and communicate effectively, all while learning a challenging new physical skill. This should be not just supported but also rewarded.
As kids get older, the challenge of showing gets substantially harder. They have to start learning to create a delicate work/life balance all while playing against other kids that are starting to show real talent and skill. There has to be time set aside for homework, chores, and social events during a season, a skill that many adults are still working through during busy times of their life.
A lot is mentally expected of an athlete at any age. Beyond learning how to work with a team, they also need to learn how to control their own emotions. It takes a lot to learn how to lose and win, how to deal with challenging interactions when something was unfair, and how to block all of it out and do it again the following week. Despite my cartwheels in the field my first season of soccer, it turns out that I am super competitive. That is a trait that, while helpful, needed to be worked out so it had a positive outlet. Sports taught me perseverance and acceptance, both positive characteristics that would serve me well later on in school and the work force. My participation trophies didn't teach me to be a unique snowflake who expected handouts; my participation trophies helped me value hard work.
My participation trophies helped me value hard work.
Frustratingly, people disapprove of children for expecting trophies and ribbons for completing a task, but when was the last time someone signed up for a race and didn't expect something at the finish line? It doesn't matter the distance — people are going to be upset if they aren't greeted with at least a medal, shirt, or beer when they're finished running. I asked my dad once why he runs so many marathons and he told me he does it for the shirts. Essentially, those marathon shirts are participation ribbons for adults that are socially acceptable to wear around society. If it's acceptable for adults, why do we not afford the same benefits for children?
Participation trophies aren't destroying society and a whole generation; in fact, they help make our children stronger and confident. In a few short years I will begin signing my son up for sports, and while there is no guarantee that he'll do well at them or enjoy them, but if he puts himself out there, then he's more than earned his medal.