Saturday, February 27, 2016

A Benchwarmers Defense of the Participation Trophy

It's a common refrain to hear these days about how my generation is lazy and entitled. I won't go into how ignorant that statement is (there are a plenty of lazy entitled people in my generation, but they were in yours too, and the one before, only now we have social media to share about them).  That's another topic for another day.

Months ago I ready a story about a pro-athlete who took away his kids participation trophies to "teach them a lesson," and SO MANY people were commending him for it. It made me sad, but this is a common thought many people share. I get where it comes from, and I see what they mean, but I beg to differ.

What I hear often is that the "participation trophy" or "participation ribbon" breeds this entitlement. That the every-kid-gets-a-trophy generation is ruining America. What's funniest is I often hear people MY AGE complaining about this, people from my hometown - talking about how kids these days are all getting participation awards and are being raised to think everyone deserves to win, when I know good and well they were on the same teams I was, and guess what - we got participation awards. Almost always. Do I see things happening in my generation and the one after that breed this entitlement? Sure, but I think scapegoating this to the participation award over and over is a tired statement that simply doesn't makes sense.

Allow me to elaborate.

I participated in EVERYTHING from the moment I was allowed do. To this day I don't know what to do with free time. It's never been a part of my life. I was a cheerleader from kindergarten to twelfth grade, I played tee-ball at 4 and continued playing softball through high school. I ran cross country. I was on the track team. I was in the beta club and the student council and the "whatever you name it if I was allowed to show up I was there" club. I played two instruments in the band and studied others on the side. Gymnastics, church choir, drama club, dancing.... EVERYTHING. When it comes to participation, I'm your queen.

If you visit my parents house and look in the bedroom where they store all of my things, you'll see a host of trophies, ribbons, medals, etc. One might see that and think "man, she was good at EVERYTHING." And you'd be dead wrong. Pretty much the only things I ever truly excelled at were cheerleading and band. I spent 13 years on tee-ball and softball teams warming the bench. I finished dead last in more cross country meets than I can count. Yet I cannot recall a single time when at the end of a season I wasn't given some sort of trophy, ribbon, certificate, etc. I'm sure there were, but I can't recall.

So maybe I'm entitled. Probably. We all are, aren't we? Let's discuss.

I loved playing softball. I loved singing the dugout chants while my teammates were batting. I loved spending my Saturdays at the ballfields. But you know what? I was TERRIBLE at it. Not just like, a little bad, I was off-the-deep-end bad. I've discovered as an adult that my theory that I had depth perception issues that were preventing me from catching and hitting properly was true - I do in fact have a sight problem that affects depth perception, but I digress. I was out there for every practice. I asked for extra time at practice so I could get better. I practiced pitching in my back yard in hopes that maybe I was good at that and I could show it to a pitching coach one day and they'd let me try my hand at it. I was not just in, I was all in. Yet every week when the lineups came out I was always a sub. I played the bare minimum innings required by the recreation department and that was all. It didn't bother me all that much, it just was what it was.

In high school, we didn't have to try out to be on the team. We were all allowed to participate - knowing that there was a chance we may never play. In order to letter, one had to complete nine varsity innings over the course of the season - our games were 7 innings so that literally mean playing just over one game. It took me three years to reach a year in which I played enough varsity innings to letter. 30+ games per year, I sat in the dugout tracking  pitches and refilling gatorades. But I was there. I travelled all over Louisiana and the Gulf Coast with my team, gaining some of the more memorable social experiences of high school, seeing small towns and high schools I would have otherwise never known existed, learning valuable life lessons. Softball was a crucial part of my high school experience - yet in my junior year I nearly quit. It was exhausting - as it fell the same time of year as track, which I was also a part of. I knew I wasn't good at it. I knew I wasn't going to get much playing time, and I just couldn't figure out its value in my schedule. At the end of the year I'd be awarded with a certificate of some sort, and MAYBE I'd finally get a notch for my letter jacket, but that was about all my high school self could see of it. Thankfully, my track coach told me I was foolish and encouraged me to continue. And I did.

At the end of my senior year I received an award for my dedication. It was incredibly meaningful. I was awarded for getting out there every day and asking for extra practice all while knowing I probably wasn't going to ever play in any important games. I still strived to. This lesson is SO valuable. When you're in a job you don't necessarily like and don't see yourself moving forward, but you don't have a valid reason to quit, pressing on gets noticed. And even if it doesn't, you know you're pressing forward. There's no value I can place on the positive impact being a crappy softball player who never quit had on my life.

And then there's cross country.

Folks, in middle school I could not run the two laps around the parking lot without wanting to cry. I was always the last person to finish. Yet something sparked me to want to start running for fun (can you imagine ME not a runner? like, think about this).  I would get up at 5 am and drag my Dad out to the high school football field where I'd run eight laps before school. Dragging my feet and wanting to cry half the time. My sophomore year of high school, I decided to join cross country. Again, a team we didn't have to try out for. Our coach built a system in which points were earned for participation, and those points translated to ability to letter, the privilege to travel to the state meet if in Natchitoches even if you didn't qualify place-wise, etc. My first year it was a chore. I dragged myself out to a couple of summer practices, and then when the season got going I made it to all of them - gradually learning to actually like it. I earned my points. I got to go to the State meet each year. It was what I looked forward to most.

My cross country friends and coach changed my high school experience altogether. I had a new social circle, and a coach who believed in everyone. Yet here I was, dragging up the back of the pack - never scoring for my team (you had to be in the top 8 on your team to score any given meet - I usually was 10 or 11 out of 11).  I worked my tail off for THREE YEARS to get my two-mile race time under 20 minutes. It was hard. But guess what, I got to participate, and I got rewards for my participation. And you know what else, I busted my tail just as much as the good people did, so why not? They got more rewards - chances to compete at higher levels, scholarships, extra patches for their jackets, etc. Participation awards do not necessarily mean that the achievement awards go away. 

Had I been discouraged from being on the cross country team or not rewarded for my efforts my life would be DRAMATICALLY different. For those who know me, you know I run. A lot. A lot a lot. I don't run like an ultra-runner, but at any given time I'm running 30-40 miles per week. I could go on and on and on about how valuable running is to my mental health and general well-being, seriously - it's so so so so so important. The lessons I learn from running and the dedication it takes and that feeling of beating MYSELF from one race to the next, oh my I could go on all day.

But all that because my participation was recognized. I was never discouraged.

I look around and see kids like myself busting their tails and never being quite so good. I agree with not giving awards to kids who just show up, sign their name, and never do anything, but when a kid is out there week after week participating, practicing, doing the same drills the uber-talented kids are - there is value in recognizing that. Trust this benchwarmer when I say it.

 I see a lot of the people who were really good at the sports in high school no longer being athletic at all. They might casually hit the gym once or twice a week, sometimes, but sports are no longer a part of their lives. Not everyone, but many, and yet I see many people like myself who were not very good, but we're still at it. We learned that participation is what matters. I actually see the opposite - the people who were really good and knew they were going to win have no drive once there's nothing to win. It often doesn't translate to other arenas of their lives. Yet those of us who always knew that just being out there and putting forth the effort mattered, we know that that's how life works. You aren't always going to win, but your efforts are valuable.

I recently have started placing in my age group in some races. I now tend to finish in the top quarter of participants in almost every race I run.  It is icing on a cake that took many years to bake. It gives me an incentive to push harder - but I'm not planning on placing in the NYC Marathon this November. I'm not planning on coming in the top three at the Brooklyn Half. But gosh darnit, getting a medal at the end of months and months of training feels good. I busted my tail, and I get something for it, and I don't feel entitled to that at all.

I love sharing what being a crappy athlete who never quit has done for my life, and will gladly go on and on about it to anyone who cares to listen. We talk about participation awards like they're this new thing. They're not. you probably got a few and don't remember. There are plenty of reasons to think people are entitled, but blaming "participation awards" is simply misplaced.

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