It’s taken me some time to comment on coach Jeff Walz’s rant about participation trophies because … well, to be honest, I am (as coach says) “a loser.”
I have a “participation trophy” from youth football.
My team had a perfect season, a feat few athletes at any level can celebrate. Even the worst teams screw up and win a game a two. But not my football team. The Enslow Bulldogs. Perfection. Not a single win. Never even close.
I have the trophy to prove it.
I’m an epic loser. And I celebrate it every chance I get.
To say we were a rag-tag hot mess would be graciously overstating our prowess. We had twelve guys on our squad, the best of which wouldn’t have been able to sniff second string on any other team in our league.
We played ironman football. With only one extra guy, very few of us ever got a breather. Most played every second of every game—offense, defense, and special teams—in the merciless heat of a sun-scorched dustbowl of a field. We were all dead by halftime of every game, and by the third quarter, we were happy to see the other team’s third-string, against which we were almost competitive.
But we kept playing.
Because no matter the odds, that’s what we’d learned from our loser parents.
As West Virginians, we’re used to being last, to being pillaged and plundered and discarded. And we’re used to getting up the next day and fighting on, even though we know we’re going to get punched in the mouth. Again. It’s part of our DNA. I wish it weren’t.
I recently came across my trophy from that epic football season. Sitting in my basement alone, I held my plastic prize and sobbed. Just like a loser. A loser remembering boyhood … and a championship season.
You see, that year was not easy for me. It wasn’t for most of my teammates, either, but we didn’t talk about such things. We were kids. We showed up at practice every day and we beat up on each other until our legs gave out, all the while knowing that we were only preparing for our next weekly embarrassment.
Zero wins. Not a single game.
But that’s not why we got trophies.
We were so bad the league brass tried to cancel our season and scrap our team to “protect us.” However, the twelve of us met with our coaches and demanded that we keep playing. We weren’t going to quit, no matter how bad we were. For some of us, it was all we had.
My uncle, who had been like a second father to me, had recently died, leaving a gaping hole in my life. My sister had run away from home. My dad was either too exhausted from life to even speak to us or out of town searching for jobs when there were few to be found. One day, I came home from school to find Dad sitting on the porch covered in blood, having been brutally attacked by my teenage sister’s soon-to-be ex-husband. Looking back, that was just another day, a part of my boyhood normalcy. My childhood home was a tidal wave of manic-depression: at times insanely joyous; others, so deep in despair that I tiptoed through the house, terrified of stirring the ghosts that still haunt my soul.
The heartbreaker is that I had it far better than some of my teammates.
As boys, we couldn’t do anything about those fractured pieces of our world. Some opponents were just too big to comprehend, let alone tackle. But on the football field, we could at least get back up after every whistle and have another chance, no matter how slim the odds. And we did.
So they gave us trophies.
We never pretended to be league champs. None of us were so bold to imagine that a plastic figurine screwed to a cheap aluminum pedestal made us anything more than the losers we really were.
However, as a grown man, I now hold that participation trophy and remember something good in my life when things could have gone either way for most of us.
We got trophies because we were all fighting demons in our homes that were bigger than young boys could—or should—imagine: poverty, abuse, mental illness, alcoholism and addiction (before it was trendy), abandonment … the list goes on. We were a twelve-man roster of refugees fighting for our lives, and we made it—all of us. We’re now in our late forties and we’re still fighting, taking whatever the world throws at us, blow by blow … and THAT’S why I celebrate my participation trophy. I look back on that awkward, chubby kid that I’ve come to respect and realize what a champion he really was.
Over the years, I’ve seen many rants by untested souls like Mr. Walz and social media sycophants who applaud his sentiments and I feel bad for them. Oh, the wretched cry of someone caught in the nightmarish turmoil of a sporting pastime. How tragic. If it makes them feel better to blame my participation trophy for their personal frustrations and the world’s problems, then have at it.
I and my teammates have endured far worse.
I have the trophy to prove it.
I’ve played for and coached championship teams. I have those trophies as well. However, they don’t mean as much.
The trophy I’m most proud of was earned by a group of losers who kept fighting when life tried to knock them down, because their victory extends far beyond the limits of some chalk line. It reaches deep into eternity.
These days I love seeing young kids get participation trophies, because I know some of them are fighting—and winning—battles most of us will never realize. And if that trinket can someday remind a kid of how he kept playing through the pain, then it’s much more than a participation trophy.
I want to tell that kid (once again quoting Coach Walz), “You’re a loser” … because you know the sting of true loss, the big ones that matter, that leave scars no one else will ever know, and you stayed in the game.
Life didn’t beat you.
Here’s your trophy, kid.
7 thoughts on “Participation Trophies”
This is the best thing I’ve ever read about participation trophies. You have hit the nail on the head, old friend. I remember that time at Enslow but did not know all that was going on with your family. Of course, I was a child , too. Keep writing! And may Godbless you.
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This was more than thought provoking! I’m tearing up for you and all the children that try to get up just to get knocked down again!
Thank you for sharing such intimate memories with us!!! I remember when you and Laura were the managers at GF SWIM CLUB, I had such respect for your work ethic on that pool!!! You are a Gem and I personnelly think you are a winner!!!
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This was amazing! Thank you for sharing your story!
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I’m conflicted about this. Whereas I understand and can empathize with your particular experience, I think a large percentage of children develop an entitlement mentality when it comes to achievement or work ethic. I agree with points of both sides.
In life, it’s not ok to coast along as an able-bodied individual and presume someone will provide a handout (“participation trophy”) and make it all ok. That is being a detriment rather than productive member of your community and society. That often times is enabled in childhood and reinforced in parenting. Personally, if my child is to receive an award or trophy, there better be some legitimate accolade accompanying it; it doesn’t have to be champion or winner, but can be acknowledging his kindness or compassion or ingenuity or toughness or grit. Not just for “participation”. Those are qualities I want to rejnforce as a father, not just winner. If my son loses, he will know it, but losing is a teaching and learning opportunity for me as a father.
Losing isn’t the focus of your story, perseverance, determination and will is. That’s what’s a Jeff Walz is talking about. It’s not ok to go through the motions, or the minimum, and expect to be rewarded with a championship, or a job, or a big house or a strong relationship. Everything we do in life requires commitment and perseverance. Sometimes we will still lose, but he is also developing his team’s ability to get back up and get back to work to improve and get better.
My question is, why do we need a cheap toy to affirm a child’s effort or dedication or whatever, regardless of win or loss?
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I think you’re picking up on the main point: it’s about compassion and grace. Much love, my friend.
You force me to reconsider a relatively anti-participation trophy stance, but I’d like to explain I feel strongly in opposition: I coached youth soccer a few years, er, decades ago in a league that was built to be fair. Administrators divvied up the kids, rosters changed from year to year, all in the name of equity, except…coaches got to have their kids on their team. So, of course one group of fathers “volunteered” to coach together. They were all home-schooling evangelicals, and since they coached as a unit the core of their team was their sons, and since they were home-schoolers, they not only had continuity from one year to the next, but they practiced daily, travelled outside the league to play in christian school tourneys, and were in every sense of the word a juggernaut who made no bones about their goal in every game–win by ten. One year, the team I coached got lucky, blessed with a quick roster of smart, motivated kids who slotted nicely into roles, a couple who loved defense, a couple who lived to keep goal, and three freakishly quick kids, one of them a girl (our team had one more girl than boys), and while we lost to the Team Jesus in the regular season 6-4, we met again in the championship and prevailed. The kids wanted it badly, tired of being kicked around by these gloating boys since they were all five years old. It was the first year that the league gave everyone the same medals, and it wasn’t lost of them that there was no distinction for their effort. One of our girls cried, remembering the different medals from previous years (gold, silver, bronze), and left hers on a bench. I tried to make it clear that the real victory was in their hearts, or some facile crap like that, but they rightly felt slighted.
As years progressed my kids became year-round swimmers and amassed countless awards. Boxes and boxes. Some invitationals give ribbons out to 9th place. Some really big invitationals give out places for the top places, and then again for the top places in the bottom half of the heats. So, if there are 20 heats of 50freestyle, for example, the top six get place ribbons and then 10-16 get place ribbons for being the best of the worst, so to speak. Now, we watch a child swim collegi
ately–well, not a child, and the awards are sensible. The NCAA doesn’t give out pity awards. Accomplish something, get validation. If not, use it as motivation to come back stronger next time. As for all those ribbons and medals from swimming, the kids kept out a few of the meaningful ones, the ones from competitions where they won, or came in second or third against “name” swimmers. All those brown and yellow and green ribbons–a brown ribbon, really?–were pretty much tossed aside as meaningless. Even as 9 or 10 years olds they new what they deserved opposed to what was intended to placate little egos.
I worry that recognizing participation and “giving your best” has a place, clearly, but I’m not sure that place is best if it is indistinguishable from everyone else. I coached basketball, too, back in the day, middle school girls for the most part, and the biggest danger was complacency, or accepting defeat. I remember one time haranguing a very average AAU U=14 team for being cheerful after an abysmal loss. “I don’t understand why you’re not upset. I’m upset. I’m disappointed. Losing should break your heart. Losing should piss you off. It always did me. You should be sitting here crying and begging to go home and practice right now because you hate this feeling and you never want it to happen again.” They looked at me like I was an alien. They’d been conditioned that second best was okay. That third was fine. That somebody had to be last. They’d been conditioned to accept mediocrity and those girls, not one of them elevated their game to play in college. One works in a 7-11. One is in jail for dealing meth. These are middle-class kids form subdivisions with all the advantages. They’re not bad. Just spoiled and ambition-less.
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JunkChuck, I have no idea how I missed your comment so many months ago–I’m sorry for that! I appreciate you taking the time to read and respond with such thoughtful comments. Honestly, I don’t disagree with you as a whole. Kids need to learn that winning and losing come with rewards and regrets.
However, I’m really talking about something bigger than a trophy: Grace.
Reading about your soccer kids (and I’ve lived that experience as a player and a coach), I immediately thought about the parable of the workers in the vineyard: The landowner hires workers throughout the day. At the end of the day, the ones who worked a few hours got paid the same as those who worked all day.
It’s an outrage. It’s scandalous. It’s unfair. But it’s grace.
I shouldn’t let the thought of what someone else receives spoil the beauty of what comes my way (and to be quite honest, that’s a lifelong battle I still fight).
When I read about your soccer kids and their championship season–man, that’s just awesome! I see your point about the warped sense of “fairness” about the hardware handed out at the end. I also understand that we need to awaken and encourage each kid’s drive for success. However, I think we need to be careful in how we define that success for our kids. In your case, your kids didn’t succeed or fail based on a medal or trophy. They succeeded because they kept fighting. Too often our kids learn that success is defined by fame, wealth, beauty, and power (I stole that from Dr. Tim Kimmel). That sets them up for a life of chasing the world’s applause (which is a sad, destructive path).
Ultimately, I hope kids learn the value of hard work, perseverance, and a unique, strong, uncompromising heart. If we could nurture those things, the trophies don’t even matter. A kid who possesses such character will have a great life, no matter what trophies the world hands her.
Again, thanks for engaging, my friend. And–again–I apologize for taking so long to reply.