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.