Have you ever received a participation trophy? You know, an award you get for just showing up?
My son brought home a flag football trophy a couple weeks ago. He played on a co-ed team that did not win a single game. Not one. In fact, if anyone was keeping score (because I was not) and told me they’d lost any given game by 80 points, I would have nodded. That sounds about right.
Their team, made up of boys and girls who were there to have fun, many playing their first time ever, played five other teams over the course of the season. The league is designed as an introduction to be recreational, a positive experience, a way to experience a sport no matter who you are, what your skill level. Yet, the skill level of my son’s team, the Panthers, was novice, and by a bit of a fluke, other teams came in with years of experience and hours of practice under their belts.
The parents glanced sideways at each other as we watched our kids miss passes and lose the ball in interception after interception. At one point, with about 20 seconds left on the clock, I heard an opposing coach tell his team, “Let’s get another score before this ends.” Which they easily did. As my husband said, “It’s like the Hobbits against the Orks.” I couldn’t have put it better.
“Are the kids having any fun?” the parents asked each other. The answer? They were.
It seemed a little hard to fathom. After all, celebrating a win is fun, and losing is not, right? But with their supportive coach pointing out their successes, as small as they were, they found reason to celebrate and learned to lift each other up.
“Good try,” they’d yell to a teammate who almost caught a pass.
“Nice pass,” they’d congratulate the kid who’d thrown a pass — despite the following interception.
“You almost got it!” they’d tell the kid who had his hands on the flag but didn’t quite grasp it.
And if they did pull a flag? If a pass ended up where it was supposed to? Or if all their efforts came together and they actually made a touchdown? Well, put on your goggles and pull out the ginger ale — that was reason for a full-on celebration.
The coach’s positive reinforcement, his focus on finding a way that each kid could feel they were contributing, his support of them — meeting them at their level — made for a happy team.
Participation trophies were en vogue for a while, but it seems they’ve fallen out of favor. People scoff unless achievement is measured by some ranking system. A trophy is something you earn, right? Your team has to be the best. They have to achieve, get the points, beat the others, win the wins. What’s the point of an award if everyone else gets the same thing?
Yet, I watched my Hobbit suit up to face a new team of Orks week after week, and I saw bravery, perseverance and enough confidence and courage to return, knowing that they were going to get creamed ... again. Surely that was more deserving of an award than going out there and tromping an inexperienced team?
My son was lucky to have a coach who sent a losing team the message that they were OK, they were improving — and most of all, they belonged.
The message we send those at the bottom of the heap matters — maybe more than those trophies that we bestow upon those who have won. It’s hard to fall down and get back up. And if you fall down again, and again, if someone isn’t standing there, ready to take your hand, ready to tell you that you’re still in this — you can do it — well, what’s to keep a kid from giving up?
So next time you wonder the value of participation trophies — don’t look at those at the top of the curve, or even those in the middle. Look at those at the bottom. It sends a message to not give up — to not count themselves out — and most of all, that they’re still in this. If they believe that message, it’s worth a thousand wins.
Overland Park mom Emily Parnell writes alternate weeks. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @emilyjparnell