The Participation Award Syndrome

I taught Tae Kwon Do for years, and each fall we joined with other karate studios in the yearly tournament. The black belts refereed each event for all age groups. The trophies were lined up on stage; grand champion, first place, second place, third place, and the participation trophies.

It was an all-day event, and for weeks I and my two co-instructors drilled our students on how to introduce themselves to the judges, and what was expected of them during their events. The whole idea of the tournament was to meet students and teachers from other karate studios, and to make it a friendly and get-to-know-you experience.

During each class we drilled our students in every event, and made a point of telling them that, if they wanted a first place trophy, they had to earn it. We told them to do their best, and to prepare themselves mentally for the tournament. Anyone who wanted extra coaching got it.

We also discussed what it was like to work hard for first place, and that sometimes we have “off” days and don’t do as well as we wanted to. We told them repeatedly that practice and preparation were the keys to being ready mentally and emotionally.

However, each year as always, there were winners and losers. Many of our students truly tried their best, but fell short anyway. Sometimes it was plain old nerves that defeated them, sometimes they hadn’t prepared themselves well enough, sometimes it just wasn’t their day.

It was difficult for the kids who had really put their heart and soul into training to come home with a participation trophy. This trophy was simply something to take home to say that you were part of that year’s competition. The kids of course were disappointed, and I can’t count the times we would sit with them and go over their performance.

What we heard the most was, “but I tried my best!” It was very hard to tell them, gently, that even when you do your very best, there can always be someone else who is better or who just practiced more. We told them that you don’t always win; that’s just how life goes.

What these kids didn’t realize at the time was they had just learned a major life lesson; sometimes you don’t win. Nearly each one of the kids who went home with only a participation trophy came back stronger the next year. Many of them took first place because they worked as hard as they could. They remembered how it felt to lose, and they didn’t want to have that happen again.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a participation trophy. It can be an affectionate reminder that you took part in an event that meant a lot to you. All of the schools that took part in the yearly tournament agreed that we should have participation awards so that everyone would have something to take home.

This isn’t a bad idea, but these days we have become a nation of “everybody wins” and everybody gets an award just for showing up. In fact, there were many of us that disagreed with having participation awards at our tournaments. We argued that part of life is losing now and then, and you must learn how to deal with disappointment. This is how life goes, and losing can be a great teacher.

Personally, I feel that that this “everybody wins” syndrome is not helping our kids learn how to deal with life. Each time you do your best and fall flat on your face, you learn something. It’s a tough lesson, but as we said to all our students who came home with participation awards, “did you learn from this?”

Trying and failing is part of life. Nobody wins all the time. You may practice ten hours every day, tell yourself that you are a winner every minute of the day, and keep focused on your goal—and still lose. Things like this make us stronger. Things like this help us grow. Things like this make us more focused. Things like this actually make us better people.

My hope for kids today is that the participation trophy in their room makes them more determined to be better and acts as a reminder that they are worthy of trying; even if they fail.


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