I was around four the first time my basketball team didn’t win a league title (it was also the first league I played in). I remember my coach handing me this pretty green ribbon with gold writing on it. I couldn’t have been more excited; to me it was just as important as the big trophies my brothers always brought home after tournaments. Being so young I couldn’t quite make out what the gold letters meant so I asked my older brother. Without hesitation he explained that it meant that I lost and threw it in the nearest trashcan he could find. A little later my mom explained to me that it was a participation ribbon but brother explained that celebrating failure only sets you up for more failure, he followed up with a “it means nothing if everyone got one”. I was bitter and upset and at four didn’t understand how that mattered, I worked hard all season long.
As I got older the lesson my brother taught me that day was more powerful than I had ever thought. I was never satisfied with good enough and always wanted to achieve higher than the game before, than the practice before. My drive was never about the prize at the end but truly about the process of getting there and competing with myself to always become better. Sure the trophies were nice, but I wouldn’t bat my eye at it for long if I didn’t receive the biggest one. Think back to your participation ribbons, what do they actually mean to you now, what did they actually teach you then? The idea of this trophy generation is far more damaging than we would all like to admit. While it may protect kids’ feelings or give them a momentary feeling of satisfaction in the long run it hurts them more than it will ever help.
One of the biggest reasons I find myself against the idea of the trophy generation is the almost immediate effect it has on the kids who already understand the value of hard work. On the same team you have 2 kids; one works hard, shows up and gives it their all every practice and game and is constantly using their free time to push themselves. The other child barely comes to practice and puts in very little effort, maybe doesn’t even care. The effects of this “trophy generation’ requires that a coach play both athletes similar to the same amount of time because both athlete’s parents paid the same amount of money. For the athlete that isn’t committed, this is teaching them that they are to be rewarded for just showing up and that no matter how much effort that they put in they still get to play. While for the other athlete this ultimately instilling hopelessness. No matter how much effort they put in or talent they have, they are not getting anything different from every other person on the team and thus should not continue to try. It’s teaching them that hard work doesn’t matter and their success and ability to thrive is not in their control. We naturally want to see results from our actions and if we are given everything without taking into account effort and success from hard work, we are not seeing results that are going to continually motivate us to thrive and ultimately allowing extrinsic motivation, we are more likely to have as children, transition to intrinsic motivation that we need as adults.
What happens when those “trophy kids” become “trophy adults” is my next biggest issue. We have all had those jobs that coddle us. You may work relentlessly to learn the material, constantly practicing the content and going out on my own to find work. Unfortunately, we have all had a coworker who does the opposite, doesn’t really care, and that shows when they are interacting with clients or coworkers. The problem with this is that no matter what effort you put in you will receive essentially the same amount of work . The issue isn’t in the way that the company operates because you have learned that sometimes that is just how life works, the issue however is in the drive that both team members have. No one is perfect at their job, we all make a lot of mistakes and sometimes mess up the content but because when you have learned that failure is a part of life and can be overcome if you continue to work. Others have never been allowed to fail and coddled so that when they do eventually fail or don’t perform to their fullest potential it holds no weight for them because they have been rewarded anyways. It teaches adults that they really don’t have to work hard to achieve success in some cases. In other cases, it doesn’t teach them how to fail at all. When they are not rewarded for just being and showing up they don’t know how to handle it and ultimately leads to continual dissatisfaction in their job. We all know that person who is constantly looking for something new to do, claiming they are on a hunt for more money or it doesn’t fit them, but in reality they haven’t learned that effort leads to satisfaction and you actually have to continually work, relentlessly for those rewards. I’m not satisfied everyday with my job but I do know that the more I work, the easier it becomes and the more fun I have. If I didn’t work tirelessly to learn the material or didn’t know how to bounce back from failed sessions that would lead to continual stress and anxiety and constantly being unfulfilled in the workplace.
The idea that everyone gets a trophy and that everyone plays no matter how much effort they put into the performance is one of the most detrimental trends happening to young generations today. I encourage you to let children fail, and to not be rewarded for just being there. To show them how to recover from failure. I encourage you to teach them that effort is the only way to truly succeed and that you don’t get a cookie just for showing up in the real world. While I don’t encourage you to do something as drastic as throwing away their ribbons, teach them that participation doesn’t mean that you have won.