Monday, February 16, 2015

In defense of participation trophies

Currently it is popular in the media to come up with all sorts of reasons my generation (I'm a Millennial) are awful and bad and worthless and all sorts of other unflattering things. It has nothing to do with the economy, nothing to do with the systemic devaluation of labor, no sir.

Apparently it's because youth sports leagues shifted to giving everyone a trophy or medal. That is what is wrong with my generation. Fifty sent lumps of plastic, not an economic depression and job market saturation, are responsible for all that plagues my ilk.

I have written about my participation in athletics here before: specifically youth basketball, dance as an adult (which has a lot in common with gymnastics as far as how I experienced navigating it while autistic), about benefits of sport in general. It's no secret, I like being active. I feel that everyone should have a chance to be active, and I feel that participation awards are part of that.

Something that was happening during my youth: programs were becoming more integrated. More people with disabilities were participating in mainstream sports, particularly kids like me who were 'too typical' in whatever way for Special Olympics but not actually, you know, good. This is a good thing, and it didn't just benefit disabled kids. It also benefitted the able kids who are just not good athletes. Opening the option to everyone is a good thing.


I'm going to tell you a secret about kids who got the medals that said "participant" on them: we know we weren't the best that day. Some were not the best any day. A whole lot of us were there anyway because we loved what we were doing, and we wanted to get better. Hell, I knew a 6 year old--this was over a decade ago, she's an adult now--who refused to take her first place trophy because she didn't even meet the requirements of her level, but all her competition fell attempting to do so. To us, the medal was an acknowledgement that we put in effort.

You know who got really intense about the trophies? Parents. My mother, at least, had it in her head that if a child is not succeeding at a sport, that child should not do that sport. It doesn't matter if they are enjoying themselves. What matters is that they are bringing home awards; if you can't possibly be the best, she said, why participate at all? It's like "because it's fun" never occurred to her, or many of the adults hanging around.

Participation awards convinced my mother that we were 'good enough' to continue in the sports of our choosing. We were succeeding! Look at the trophy! My first year competing tumbling, I was mediocre. Had I not come home from the first meet with a trophy, my mother would have yanked me out. Five months later I got 8th at State & qualified to Nationals. Six weeks after that I got 6th at Nationals. Many years after that I got 3rd at Nationals. But without the participation trophies, which to my parents meant success, I wouldn't have had the chance to get the real benefits from my chosen sport.

Things like strength. Things like perseverance. Things like learning to lose and win gracefully. Things like goal setting. Things like learning to cope with a bad day. Building frustration tolerance skills. In my case, building enough physical dexterity to move relatively gracefully through space. Friendships. Knowing how to compete with someone without them being The Enemy. Focus. Comfort in front of an audience. Poise. Working through fear.

It wasn't about the trophies, and I suspect it wasn't for most of my generation in the various activities we pursued. I had a lot of trophies. Some were even pretty impressive. The only one I was sad to have to leave when I moved?

It was the one that my coaches nominated me for & coaches & judges voted on. It wasn't for being a great athlete (I was pretty good. I wasn't Athlete of the Year material). It was for...sportsmanship, setting a good example for younger competitors, perseverance, grace in both victory and defeat.

It was for the things that mattered.

But I never would have gotten to that place without participation trophies because of the old idea that sports are only for the most gifted of athletes. Most of the people I did sports with? We did it because we liked it. Not for the trophy or medal. And we knew which trophies and medals really stood for something.

Every once in a while someone still ableistly denounces participation trophies with "it's not the Special Olympics". That's bigoted as all get out. Athletes with developmental disabilities are frequently participating out of love for the sport, too (I do have criticisms of SO, namely that it's segregated & run by able people; the way they set up an environment where every participant can succeed is not a thing to be criticized). Special Olympians are athletes, just like anyone who regularly participates in a sport. Their developmental disabilities do not change that, and a gold medal won at a national SO competition matters just as much as one won at any national sporting event. So even if I can't convince you that participation awards are a good thing, at least stop saying this & come up with a real criticism.

My generation has inherited a big huge mess. It's not our participation trophies' fault. The world would be even more screwed if we didn't grow up with programs where everyone was rewarded for their success, rather than just winning. We had the chance to learn a lot of things that you can't display on a medal, without which we'd be even more messed up.

So stop the hate on for the participation trophies; participating was not and is not a bad thing.

6 comments:

Melanie Bettinelli said...


I've always thought that the hatred for participation trophies was at root a hatred not for the trophies themselves but for precisely the attitude you describe your mother as having. You say she "had it in her head that if a child is not succeeding at a sport, that child should not do that sport." and "if you can't possibly be the best, she said, why participate at all." So I'd say at least some of the people who hate on participation trophies are actually hating on the idea that sports can't be done just for fun but need that trophy to validate it. Perhaps the haters are really agreeing with you and disagreeing with your mother?

So maybe in hating on participation trophies, really what people are doing is not hating on millennials per se, but critiquing the generation of parents who thought their kids shouldn't do anything they weren't going to excel at? Perhaps for at least some critics the trophy is merely a symbol for the parental attitude that refuses to let sports be played just because it's fun?

You present a fascinating point of view that I'd never considered before: the possibility that participation trophies act as a sort of key that unlocks the ability to participate at all. That they could in fact be a work-around that got the parents of kids who love sports but aren't excellent to buy in to letting their kids continue to play. That's a really interesting place you're coming from but I wonder how intentional it was on the part of the coaches Were trophies more for the parents than for the kids in the coaches' minds too?

And I wonder if your experience is typical of those of your generation. Did many kids feel that without participation trophies they wouldn't have been participating at all?

On the other hand, it seems like you're saying the participation trophies aren't good in themselves, but only good because they had a good effect for you and other kids when they removed your parents' objections. Which means that it's possible that despite having a positive role in your childhood athletic career, opening the door to participation, they still might have been problematic for other kids and even problematic in themselves? Is it a good thing that kids couldn't just play for the fun of playing without a trophy? Wouldn't it have been better if your mom could have let you do something you enjoyed because you enjoyed it? As much as the trophies gained you admission to the world of sports, don't they still partly represent something lost, a mother's unconditional acceptance of who you are and what you liked to do? It seems there might be room to regret the necessity of the participation trophy, even while you are grateful that it unlocked a door for you? Participating is a good thing, for sure, but I'm not entirely convinced that the trophies are as good as simply letting kids do what they love without any external rewards.

Gosh, I'm sorry for the really long comment, I hope it doesn't feel overwhelming or attacking, that's not my intent. I appreciate your ideas very much and am grateful that you are sharing your experiences. It's led to some new ways of looking at things and that gets me all excited and wanting to talk about the ideas.

ischemgeek said...

Participation trophies/medals/ribbons are also good for two other things: 1, as a keepsake, and 2, as a tangible measure of progress - when I was a kid in sport, having "participation" make way for a top-10 ribbon, and then a 7th place ribbon, and then a 5th place, and then an actual medal, and then medals start coming more often, until finally I was almost always placing in the top three? That was very cool. I have a record of my hard work in a tangible timeline of events that I wouldn't have without participation medals or ribbons.

A third thing that comes to mind is more of a psychological thing: In events where there were no participation awards, to me as a kid anyway, it felt as if learning to do well was beyond my reach. Events that did have participation awards, on the other hand, even if they were just a dinky little ribbon... they kind of sent home a message that there wasn't that much difference between, you, Kid Who Placed A Very Distant Last (this was me for the first year or so in my sport - a fine motor sport for a kid with an undiagnosed learning disability about fine motor things, so I was bad. Very bad. I succeeded not through any talent for it, but because I spent two hours a day practicing for 5 years straight), and the kid who placed first. It made success visible and plausible as a goal to me, in a way that a million lectures on "hard work" and "perseverance" didn't. And don't get me wrong: I knew I was bad. I couldn't not know I was bad (even if my teammates didn't all groan whenever Coach put me in for basketball or with the other sport, it's kind of hard to pretend not to be bad when your score is half that of the next-lowest placing competitor in your age division). But the sports I stayed in were uniformly ones that encouraged participation actively, through rewarding participation and being a good sport. I guess it's because those sports are walking the walk about all the "perseverance and hard work matter" stuff that sports people like to go on at length about?

vicki blum said...

I look at this fucked up world, and one of the few things that gives me hope is the millenial generation [especially the Autistic ones] This is the generation that is going to turn cultural priorities upside down.

vicki blum said...

I made a quick comment last night between tasks. I would like to comment further.

I am as worried about the millenial generation as anyone is. My concern, though, is not that this younger generation will never jump into lockstep with many in the past few generations, but that it will. Just like my generation did.

The impression I get is that millenials in general look at life as something to LIVE, rather than a period of time to accumulate power and material possesions at whatever cost to others.

In my generation, it's true. We did not receive participation awards. Those of us who could not advance to the top levels in sports [or whatever] no matter how hard we tried, either quit or were dismissed for not being good enough. I, as I am sure many others, just stopped participating.
I do not know if it is used anymore [how did I get so old?] but there used to be an expression, "It doesn't matter if you win or lose as long as you play the game."

Isn't that what participation awards are about?

I find it more than a little ironic that so many of the people who are neurologically wired for cooperation, are less able to see this than those of us who supposedly are not.

Sanctaphrax said...

I'm young, and I got participation medals as a kid. I found them mildly insulting. It never occurred to me that they could keep people with difficult parents from being pulled out.

So this has changed my perspective a bit. Thanks.

theunlovelypoet said...

Thank you for this. Thank you I'm every way. I've went to various "Special Needs" schools, notably the nefarious Walker Home and School. At Gifford, my middle- and high-school, participation trophies were a thing. And thank goodness they were. My bipolar/depression levels and concept of self-worth (or lack thereof) had me suicidal. I felt like I could do nothing and should do nothing because I'd fuck it up anyway--and not just fuck it up for myself, by participating I honestly, strongly, truly, deeply felt that I'd fuck it up for everyone else, too, just by being there. It was an effort to get up and exist every day (sometimes it still is) let alone participate in things I wanted to but absolutely couldn't because I was a) bad it it (and failing at ANYTHING made my depression levels go up and self-worth go down; i.e."I'm such a worthless fuck up I can't even do sonwthing as simple as.catch a ball") and/or b) didn't have it in me to try because I thought--I knew--I'd just be in the way and bad at it and ruin everybody's fun and so on. So, even if I liked and wanted to participate, I just . . . couldn't.
The Gifford School had a really problematic participation rule; you'd lose points on your "point sheet" and up on "red level," which meant all your 'privileges' were taken away and weren't allowed to be in the classroom with other students. That was problematic and using fear tactics against us. Awful. But they did give participation trophies for pseudo - sports (we didn't have sports teams). Joining in and getting a trophy--just for joining in!--was a novel and incredible concept; it meant I really didn't get in the way just by trying or existing. Which in turn helped my view of myself as someone who shouldn't exist to someone who probably maybe almost didn't suck at Life. Or sports. Or what have you.
Gifford gave every student a personalized trophy at the end of the school year, just for them and nobody else (i.e. "improvement in math award," or "self-effixacy award," not necessarily relating to school or sports--improvement gotten "prolific poetry award" and some sort of "awesome friend" thing). And that year I got a "positive participation in sports and activities award." It sounds . . . silly, I guess . . .and I'm having trouble wording what I exactly mean. Just, I guess, participation trophies are important for SO MANY REASONS; psychological, emotional, social, physical--and certainly aren't the product of the fictitious idea of "spoiled/entitled millennials.'