In Praise of Participation Awards

Few people have anything nice to say about participation awards, that embarrassing exemplar of all that’s wrong with today’s parents and the reason why millennials and those who follow are destined to fail.  An award that some say honors nothing beyond merely showing up, the initially well-meaning participation award was originally intended to nurture our young ones’ self-esteem and encourage less-talented players to keep at it even if they weren’t star players.  I suspect that the participation award was also an effort to replace youth sports’ over-emphasis on individual performance and minimization of the value of teamwork.  All noble ideals.

The participation award has fallen on hard times of late, however, as red-blooded Americans from all walks of life decry the notion that all everyone on a team should be honored and recognized at awards time, regardless of whether they made a meaningful contribution to the team.  Cited by some as the ultimate example of the sissification of America, the humble participation award has become a scapegoat for everything people over the age of 55 think is wrong with anyone under the age of 30, including that they’re entitled, lazy and narcissistic; are depressed and/or numb due to their parents’ failed child-rearing strategies; and are incapable of meaningful relationships and human interaction because of social media and smartphones (more on that later).  If it were true that the participation award were to blame for all these alleged conditions, that would be a bad thing.

The case against participation awards has been made over and over again in recent years:  Some argue that they send the wrong message – that it is bad – unendurable, even – to actually lose, so much so that children must be protected from losing at all costs, which is of course ridiculous.  Others suggest that participation awards, by virtue of the fact that everyone gets one, don’t end up mattering all that much to their recipients.  Still other critics aver that participation awards perpetuate the incorrect notion that everyone is a “winner,” when in fact there are winners or losers, period.  Along those lines, in a letter to the New York Time, one accomplished high-school athlete expressed her opinion that participation awards are “a slight to the truly exceptional.”  At their worst, some say, participation awards instill a sense of entitlement and discourage effort because their recipients come to believe that everything they do – things that previous generations understood as givens – are worthy of recognition – indeed, consider the following quote from a 2015 Forbes article entitled, “You Don’t Get Participation Awards for Showing Up to Work:”

A $2 billion a year industry has grown up around some parent’s need to reward their child with meaningless awards just for joining a team. And as it has, we have all fumbled an important life lesson for our children. Prizes won’t increase motivation—it actually lowers it. Why would a child attempt to improve when he or she is treated the same as the kid on the sidelines chasing butterflies?

Unfortunately, the “helicopter parenting” crowd has already profoundly affected our society.  Study after study on millennials show an increase in depression, anxiety, and a lack of coping skills with disappointment. How do we reframe this discussion with a generation of young people that have been sheltered from the harsh realities of losing?

These are all thought-provoking arguments, which, if true, are a damning indictment on participation awards.  After all, no one wants to raise a generation of lazy, entitled brats who won’t strive to achieve unless there’s the guarantee of a tangible reward.


But let’s take a step back and really look at those arguments, and then let’s contemplate whether the participation award doesn’t have some value.

First and foremost, I disagree with the sweeping assumption that millennials are doomed to a life of poor job performance, depression, and isolation.  From what I’ve seen, while millennials certainly have a different set of values (as their parents before them did), they aren’t values that suggest that we are on the precipice of disaster.  My oldest daughter, who’s 26, cares less about making a lot of money and more about having a job that she finds fulfilling – and, having just received a master’s degree in speech and language pathology, as well as a a job working with older teens with intellectual disabilities and autism, she had found her dream career where the work she does feeds her soul.  She and her fiance care less about driving a luxury vehicle or living in a mini-mansion than having free time to pursue leisure activities and jobs that will permit them to spend a lot of time with their kids, when they have them.  They and their friends are a lot less materialistic that my generation that came of age in the Big Big Big 1980’s – they aren’t very impressed with designer labels or other status symbols, and most of them have made at least one humanitarian trip by the age of 25.

These days, moreover, most high schools are requiring kids to participate in some form of community service as a requirement for graduation, and while prejudice, racism, and bigotry are all around us, most people under the age of thirty truly do not understand the hoopla over marriage equality, gay rights, or the LGBTQ community in general – it’s simply not an issue.  Millennials care about the environment and have been raised to recycle, to be mindful of the impact of greenhouse gasses, and the impact of deforestation and species extinction on our global ecosystem.  Those facts suggest to me a kinder, more tolerant, and other-focused generation.  Are there millennials who are assholes? Assuredly.  But blanket generalizations about millennials are no more accurate than those about baby boomers, or the “Greatest Generation” were.  And even if those generalizations were accurate, I disagree that the participation award is to blame, and if I had to point to the factors that may play some role in the sea change we see in millennials, I’d suggest that it’s the constant threat of terrorism, the prevalence of violence in schools, or the specter of climate change that informs the attitudes and actions of this particular generation.

Having said that, I’d like to make the case for the participation award, and I make it from the perspective of the World’s Worst Athlete, Hands Down, Ever, Case Closed, Goodnight Gracie.  I was – and this is true – always, always, ALWAYS the last to be picked for any team, whether in gym class or in the recess yard.  Even though I knew it was coming – and it always did – knowing that I was going to be picked last didn’t make it any less humiliating.  I recall one such occasion in which it came down to the last two of us, and when the captain of one team said, “I guess we’ll take ___ “ (the person who wasn’t me), the entirety of the other team groaned in unison.  Now, if that isn’t a prime example of an opportunity to feel like a loser and learning to cope with that reality, I don’t know what is.  Even when gym teachers handled team selection by counting off or going alphabetically, it was inevitable that when my teammates realized that they were going to be burdened with my predictably poor performance, they didn’t bother to hide their disappointment.

So it was that team sports were not an enjoyable experience for me, and since gym class was pretty much all about team sports (at least, when I was in grade school and middle school), it should come as no surprise that I shied away from anything even remotely athletic, save a brief period following the 1976 Summer Olympics when I (like ever 12 year old American girl) wanted to be Nadia Comaneci and took gymnastics class until my lack of talent and progress lead one instructor to tell me to just go home and stop wasting my parents’ money (true story).

Then, in seventh grade, for reasons that, to this day, continue to elude me, I decided to try out for the soccer team.  On the day that students were to show up for try-outs, I went to the wrong gym and found myself sitting among those who were there to play women’s field hockey.  I was too embarrassed to admit that I’d walked into the wrong room, and so I stayed for the meeting, picked up my hockey stick, and started showing up for practice.  That’s how I ended up playing 5/6 of a season of middle school field hockey.

I detested field hockey.  Truly, I don’t know if there are words to adequately describe how much I hated it.  Field hockey involves a lot of running, and a lot of running drills, and every day, it seemed, we spent hour after hour running up and down the field, doing “suicides,” or whatever they call it now, in which you run for 12 or 13 hours, without water, until you die.  I was always the last one finished, and you know what happens to the last one finished? They get to do it again while everyone else takes a break.  Now, I do not profess to know anything about sports coaching – nothing at all – and perhaps this technique was designed to help me improve out of sheer humiliation, but it didn’t, because everyone else on the field hockey team had at least some pretension of talent and skill, and they were all better runners – better EVERYTHING – than me – and there was no way I was ever going to be as good, or as fast, as the rest of them.

So I spent a lot of time running, up and down that stupid field, hating every minute of it.  It goes without saying that my other field hockey skills – hand/eye coordination, accuracy, etc. – were non-existent, and during the 5/6 of the season that I played on the Pennbrook Junior High School Junior Varsity Women’s Field Hockey Team, I played exactly 3 minutes of interscholastic competition, and that was about 2 minutes and 57 seconds longer than I would have liked.  I sucked.  I really and truly sucked.  Everyone on the team knew it, they made sure I knew it, and not once – not once did anyone, coach or player – offer me any encouragement whatsoever.  No, “hey, Wendy, good try!” No, “Way to stick it out even though you’re really, really bad at this!” Instead, what I heard was, “you suck.”  Which is fair, because I did.

Five-sixths of the way through the season, I decided I’d had enough, and I quit.  I think there was maybe a week left in the season, and my Mom was bewildered when I told her that I’d left the team.  “Why didn’t you just finish out the season?” she asked.  I couldn’t answer her, but the truth was, as much as I hated the running, my burning lungs, the tears that fell when, yet again, I came in last, it was the contempt I felt from my teammates that hurt the most.  I was so tired of being reminded for two hours every day how much I sucked – as if I needed reminding.

After that experience, I never, ever tried to play a team sport again, even for fun, like at a family picnic, and especially not at work events.  The summer softball game that was part and parcel of so many law firms where I’ve worked was always a cause for anxiety, but I’d always come up with an excuse why I couldn’t play (pregnancy got me out of at least two such games).  As I watched others play – some of whom weren’t all that good, and might have been worse than me if I’d given it a try – I got angry that my team sports experiences had been so negative that playing a game of pick-up softball (which everyone else seemed to be enjoying) was something I wouldn’t even consider.  There was no way I was going to risk demonstrating my lack of athletic prowess to my professional colleagues – no way.  So I’d sit in the bleachers pretending that I didn’t feel well.

Now, by this point, you’re probably saying, “gee, Wendy, that’s a shame that you suck so badly at sports and that people weren’t more supportive of you, but what does that have to do with participation awards?” Well, I’ll tell you:  If someone had given me an award – ANY award – for playing field hockey, I can tell you that I would have carried that award around with me my whole life.  It would have meant more to me than those I received for things like winning spelling bees, being the kid who read the most books over the summer, or earning the title of end-of-the-year math speed test champion.  Those awards and titles came easily to me, and even though they recognized my achievement, talent and skill, they didn’t require much effort (not at the grammar school level, anyway), so they were no big deal.  How hard was it to spell “syzygy”? How difficult is it to memorize your times tables and then write them down really fast?

But field hockey WAS hard.  It was agonizingly difficult.  Each night, after I got home from practice and ate dinner, I’d take my field hockey stick (number 56 – I still remember), and I’d go outside and practice my push-passes and dribbling down the field (which is probably not even what it’s called).  I tried – I really, really tried.  No one noticed, except me (and yes, I know, that’s the most important lesson of all).  But it would have been nice if, way back in 1977, there had been such a thing as a participation award, because maybe I would have stuck it out for the entire season, and MAYBE (it’s a big “maybe”) – I would have tried again the next year.  But we didn’t have participation awards in 1977; we had winners, losers, and contempt.

There are a lot of wonderful things about team sports.  I didn’t actually get to enjoy any of those as a field hockey player, but I did get the same teamwork-practice-goals-success piece of it as a member of a competitive marching band in high school, and I’m sure the joy and pride and accomplishment I experienced when our band won two state titles and one national championship were very close to what athletes feel when their team wins a big game – the sense of shared sacrifice, commitment, striving and success binding you forever to people you might not otherwise have encountered in your life.  I loved being in the band for the very same reason, I think, that others love playing team sports.  The lessons I learned as a member of the band have assisted me throughout my life and have made me a better person.  So, team sports can be a really great experience for kids, and we should encourage them to PARTICIPATE so they can learn some fundamental life lessons.

But a lot of kids don’t participate in team sports for precisely the same reasons I stopped after my field hockey debacle 40 years ago – because everyone knows who the stars are and everyone knows who sucks, and no one wants to be the one who sucks.  These days, especially, when kids are starting to play sports seriously at the age of 5, and it’s pretty much too late to try a new sport after the age of about 8, when parents are sending their kids for specialized supplemental training in middle school in order to increase their chance at making the travel team or the high school squad – well, it’s really bad to be the one who sucks (though those who do are weeded out soon enough).

The thing is, there are really, really good reasons to encourage kids to play team sports when they’re young, regardless of how good they are.  Some kids, for example, are late bloomers – their natural talent may not show up until they’re a little older.  There are also kids who just need a chance to get the hang of it, and that might take a few years.  There are still others who might never be a great player but for whom a team sport may be a window to friendships and experiences he or she might not otherwise have had, or who may find ways to participate as something other than a player – perhaps a team manager, or, later in life, as a coach.  For each of these sorts of players, participating in team sports can have a very beneficial effect, regardless of how “good” the player is.  And, of course, team sports is so much more that how you throw the ball; their value to most kids has less to do with how well they played than in what they learned about discipline, teamwork, and commitment.

Does the promise of a participation award guarantee that kids who normally wouldn’t play sports will give it a try? Maybe not – but it MIGHT encourage that kid to come back, even if he or she has had a tough season and is thinking about throwing in the towel.  The participation award also communicates that the player’s being there benefitted the group, not necessarily because he or she excelled, but because he or she was willing to make the commitment to the team and enable it to be a team – after all, most teams need between 10 – 20 players, depending upon the sport, and you can’t field a team with three superstars and a coach.

The participation award also acknowledges the importance of getting your butt off the sofa and onto the field, and who hasn’t heard at least one corporate CEO spout that old axiom, “the world is run by those who show up”?  Google it and peruse the many instances in which business leaders talk about the importance of just showing up – apparently, something that’s not quite as obvious as one would think.  It’s true, you aren’t likely to get an award at work merely for appearing each morning, but the importance of doing so – and, therefore, being in a position to achieve and succeed – is the raison d’etre of the participation award.  I’ve never been a huge fan of the participation awards more respectable cousin – the “perfect attendance” award – but when people talk about Lou Gehrig or Cal Ripken as examples of dedication and commitment, it’s the fact that they never missed a game that they’re talking about.

When we encourage young people to show up, to try new things (even, and especially, when they’re not very good at them), when acknowledge the courage it takes to show up day after day, knowing your teammates (and probably the coaches, too), think you suck.  When we suggest that achievement and performance aren’t the most important thing in life, then maybe we also teach important values, such as persisting in the face of difficulty and being respectful of those whose talents don’t match our own.  As for that high school athlete who felt that her “exceptional talent” was being slighted by participation awards, I say, if you’re truly talented, and you’re willing to work to perfect that talent, you’re probably going to win a whole bunch of awards that recognize that skill and performance, such as team MVP, league champion, or whatever awards they give you when you play sports.  Your accomplishments are not diminished by the fact that someone with less natural talent than you was recognized for trying – and believe me, that person knows, as everyone else does, that you’re the better athlete, and always will be.

So I think participation awards may not be the worst thing next to parents who call principals and demanding that their child’s AP Chemistry grade be changed from a C to an A, or those who write they kids’ college essays or “heavily assist” in their third-grade diorama project (all bad things).  If there’s a way to encourage young people to play sports, and, in turn, to benefit from all that sports has to offer, is it such a big deal to recognize that those kids came out and tried? I’m not suggesting they receive a trophy that’s taller than they are; in fact, maybe instead of an award, the coach could say a few words about each kid and what they contributed to the team (maybe they do that anyway – I wouldn’t know).  The cream of the crop will rise to the top, and those who are truly without real talent will eventually step back once they find something else they enjoy and excel at, but I believe – I truly believe this – that the encouragement they receive as young players, being made to feel welcome and appreciated, will give them the confidence to try other things even if they aren’t sure they’ll be any good at it.

In the end, I did learn a lot from my field hockey experience even though I didn’t get a participation award.  I learned that it’s probably a good idea to speak up when you’re in the wrong room, and I also learned that sometimes, you’re not going to be very good at something no matter how hard you try, and if there are other things you’re interested in trying, it probably doesn’t make much sense prolonging the inevitable – in my case, quitting field hockey 5/6 of the way through the season.  I don’t believe that finishing out the season would have made me feel any better about my field hockey experience (in fact, another week of humiliation and agony would probably have done more harm than good), and I can’t say for sure that the promise of some sort of tangible recognition would have been enough to keep me at it for another week.  But it might have, although that probably says more about me than it does about participation awards.  Wendy does not have an athlete’s spirit.

I guess I’d just like for people to consider whether giving out some form of a participation award is really the reason why millennials are depressed and don’t want to “adult” and why the world is going to hell in a handbasket.  Does all that owe to the fact that some of them were applauded for showing up, when they were very young, and trying something new, knowing that others might be better than them or laugh at them? Or could it be the constant threat of terrorism, violence in schools, or the specter of climate change that gives millennials pause about how much longer they’ll be here and what condition the world will be in as long as they are?  In any case, no one ever died from having someone acknowledge their contribution, no matter how modest the form of such recognition; in fact, I think just the opposite is true.

By the way, I am giving myself a participation award for writing this blog.  The rest of you can heap on all the performance awards you want.

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