Why participation medals are undermining what matters most about sports
When it comes to young children, trophies can be a valuable tool. Alarmingly, however, participation trophies are no longer limited to kindergartners’ field day events and kids’ fun runs. Today, adults circle around Monday-morning water coolers across America, proudly wearing their medals bestowed upon them via pre-race schwag bag from the registration tent of the new fad obstacle course race. Others wear shirts from the latest distance running event, during which they never even toed the starting line because the race offered a “Ghost Runner” registration option (they simply paid the entrance fee from their couches and were shipped an event shirt as if they actually ran the race).
Awarding adults with trophies for participation in an event sends a mixed message. Given the pervasiveness of this phenomena across all realms of competition, it is not surprising when even adults are disappointed when success does not come immediately in other areas of life.
We are blurring lines. We are stealing valor. We are losing our real life folk heroes. True champions are now underground bands, while we treat weekend warriors like major venue headliners. We award any semblance of effort or worse—the mere state of existing in spirited costume—as if it were accomplishment. In this new world, impostery becomes synonymous with mastery.
A Brief History
When I was younger, I earned three state champion titles in what is considered the triple crown of high school distance running: the mile and 2-mile Track & Field races and the 5K Cross Country race (the latter of which I won by running on a broken ankle). As an adult, I won a National Championship title in the niche, ultra-endurance sport of Adventure Racing, but only after topping off five years of heavy involvement and competition with two more of intensive training specifically for the event. During the ten months before the event, I logged over 700 hours of training.
Today, everybody gets a trophy, and nobody learns resilience in the face of adversity. There is something depressing about accepting the same award as the guy who rolled off the couch the morning of to accept his. Or consider accepting the same award after a year of training for a competition that you received the year prior sans twelve months of blood, sweat, and tears.
The sweat, setbacks, and sacrifices associated with chasing the podium are all part of the eventual success that participants and those stopping after having once or twice “given it their best” will never know.
Participation Vs. Winning
I want to be clear that there are several laudable accomplishments shy of winning, and jubilation may very well be justified based on the individual, his or her goals, and where these milestones lie on his or her path to attaining them. But, let’s not continue down this path of blurring the lines—participation and earning a spot on the podium are often NOT the same thing. We adults replaced our sense of intrinsic value in challenging ourselves with the extrinsic rewards we once received to encourage endeavoring in the first place. We put away our hearts’ true ambitions and replaced them with what now has become cheap plastic.
Misty Copeland, at the age of thirteen, began ballet late in life as a teenager. Her lack of genetics for it, ever-present throughout her career, was immortalized by a viral Under Armour commercial, which retold her rejection by a dance academy because she lacked “the right feet, achilles tendons, turnout, torso length, and bust.” Twenty years after she began, she was promoted to principal ballerina at American Ballet Theatre, becoming the first African-American woman to hold that role in ABT’s 75-year history.
Naturally talented athletes who have easily secured the podium early in life more often than not give it up because they lack the necessary work ethic to retain it of ambitious up-and-coming challengers. With time as a factor, it is not only possible but probable that someone born without innate aptitude but earnestly working toward it climbs the podium–happily, I might add.
Being wise in implementation, passionate in execution, and giving it “your actual best” with consistency and perseverance over time are the hallmarks of a champion.
Champions present and future disdain participation trophies because people who put in a champion’s effort do not want that effort bucketed with the laziness of someone who simply gets off the couch on a Saturday morning.
We have allowed participation trophies to become the norm and accept them as representative of effort worthy of the podium.
I get it, though. When it comes to competition, we have a genuine and good-natured desire for equality of opportunity. Nonetheless, we cannot allow it to overshadow the inequality of outcome inherent in the very nature of competition. We cannot lump all effort into the same category. We cannot continue to normalize accomplishment to the least common denominator among us. We have allowed participation trophies to become the norm and accept them as representative of effort worthy of the podium.
Not To Be Mistaken
John Wooden, arguably the most successful coach to have ever lived, won ten NCAA Championships during his 12-year stay as UCLA’s head basketball coach. When asked about his “secrets” to success, he famously advised, “Don’t mistake activity with achievement.” Remarkably, we consciously decide to do precisely that: we litter competitors’ mantles with participation trophies and in doing so award the achievement of mere activity. We need to retract this everyone’s-a-winner-mentality ritual, replace it with individual pride in personal accomplishment, and restore a collective sense of scale on what it takes to stand atop a podium and receive a trophy.
We need to acknowledge what those on the podium already know–that there is a progression to mastery. Every champion of his or her arena begins by being a participant, but what differentiates a champion from the other participants is that venturing into something new is a foothill, not the summit.
Glorifying false summits, as we currently do with participation trophies, has diluted not only the value of the trophy, but the definition of the word. That a trophy, which by definition is “awarded as a prize for victory or success” in competition, should be granted simply for participation has misled us in what is required to truly reach the pinnacle of accomplishment. In our attempt to build confidence and stave off failure, we have set ourselves up for it should we ever need to truly apply ourselves, inside or outside of the sports arena. And so, going forward, let us congratulate those yet in the foothills with a pat on the back, not a trophy.