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.


Baby Boomers Back in the Day

Back when us Baby Boomers were in grade school, no one knew diddly about ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, restless leg syndrome, peanut allergies, or had ever heard of a bike helmet. If during class you got fidgety or acted up, you went straight to the principal’s office. The lines drawn were pretty simple; sit still, shut up and listen and don’t give the teacher any trouble.

The teaching method back then was this: the teacher taught, the students sat still (or tried to) in their seats, folded their hands and looked straight ahead and gave the teacher full attention (or looked like it, anyway). No one explained much of anything to us; we were told to zip our lips and listen. When tests came around, the teachers found out who was listening and who was not.

Back then no one had a problem with what was called “corporal punishment;” that is, a spanking administered by the teacher if you caused any trouble in class. Parents were notified, and when you got home, you got punished all over again. I remember telling my parents that this wasn’t fair, and was told that the world isn’t fair and to get over it.

Teachers back then didn’t explain anything; you were expected to do as you were told. Questioning the teacher was not encouraged. At that time in history, we also had air raid drills. This meant that when a certain signal was given, we were all to get under our desks, make ourselves as small as possible and to cross our arms cover our heads. We were to stay there until given the order to get back in our seats.

I got in trouble once during one of these because I stuck my head out from under my desk to see what was going on. My teacher shoved my head back under the desk saying, “do you want your head shot off?” I had no idea who and what wanted to shoot my head off.

It took years for many of us in our generation to understand why we didn’t learn well because of what is now known as ADD or ADHD. So now we now know that some of us actually had something we couldn’t help or recognize that held us back. I see this both in myself and in the Crankee Yankee.

When we were kids, parents, grandparents and teachers (or just about any adult) were the word of law, and we were not expected to question them. I’m not saying that this was a perfect system, but that’s just how things were back then. Funnily enough, both the Crankee Yankee and I had the same comments on our report cards: “Would do a lot better if he/she stopped daydreaming and got down to business.”

When I was in college, I went for a teaching degree in English education, mainly because I loved reading and writing. I imagined myself as a teacher who inspired kids to also love reading and writing. Back then, this degree path meant that you didn’t get to student teach until senior year, so if it didn’t work out, it was too late to change majors.

By the time I was a student teacher, I found I really wasn’t cut out to be a teacher. The whole school system was still too rigid (or so it seemed to me), and new ideas in teaching were not appreciated. I realized that this was not the right path for me, and that I wasn’t inspiring any students to love reading and writing.

I suppose that I was trying to eradicate the teaching methods I’d grown up with, and was hoping to change the teaching world. I soon discovered it was too big a challenge for me, and I went into business instead. I became a technical writer and loved it. I realize now that this was actually my way of teaching people; instead of standing in a classroom, I wrote “how to” manuals.

It’s funny how some of us find our way despite our background and education. We may find that one or two teachers in our lives inspire us, and these teachers may not even be school teachers. They can be a friend, a relative, a famous writer, a doctor, a carpenter, someone we read about—whoever moves us in a positive direction is a teacher in their way.

A teacher teaches, and we as students of any age learn.