At the ripe old ages of 9 and 12, my daughters have already accumulated rooms full of sports-associated bling. Gymnastics and running medals, swimming ribbons and soccer trophies line their walls and shelves. At first glance, you might think my girls were Olympic-caliber athletes destined for greatness, but in reality, all of that bling, save for a few of the swimming ribbons, were participation awards given to them for simply showing up.
James Harrison, linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, made headlines recently for a stance against this type of "everyone gets a ribbon" mentality. Harrison posted a photo on Instagram of two trophies that had been awarded to his sons — ages 6 and 8 — for participation on the team, trophies that Harrison gave back, until such time as his boys "earn" their awards.
As of this writing, Harrison's post has received more than 18,000 likes along with more than 3,500 comments — most of them supportive of Harrison's position.
Advocates of participation medals feel that kids should be rewarded for any effort they make and encouraged to do their best, even if not every kid is gonna win the gold. But honestly, ask any parent what happens with all of those awards and most will tell you that they are collecting dust on the shelf — that is if they haven't been cast aside the minute the kids get home. Awards that haven't been earned are long on sentiment and short on meaning.
Case in point: My eldest daughter has a room full of these types of awards. But what she really wanted this year was to make the All-Star team in swimming. She does very well on our local swim team and she has received a number of earned awards. She worked her butt off to hit the times she would need to make the team. But in the end — even though she came within .01 seconds of reaching her goal — she did not make the team. She put on a brave face, but I knew she was devastated. It broke my heart because I knew she had given it her all.
But that's a life lesson, isn't it? You can work hard towards a goal but it's not a guarantee that you'll achieve it. And that's when the true winners are made. At that point you can either give up and give in, or you can decide to double-down and work that much harder to make your dream a reality.
My daughter has chosen the second path. It's still not a guarantee that she will make the team. But whether it's next year, or the year after that, I'm hopeful that her dedication will eventually pay off. And when it does, the ribbon she receives for that meet will mean more to her than her closet full of participation medals.