I coached youth soccer for a decade. I coached in a recreational league where the goal was to teach the game of soccer. Other goals included teaching kids how to be part of a team, sportsmanship, and how to handle winning and losing with grace.
One year, I had a team that didn’t win a single game. I felt bad about it. I felt as if I had failed as a coach. Towards the end of the season, I picked up a few of the kids to drive them to a game in our van. They were doing their usual travel chatter when I interrupted and asked, “Does it bother you guys we haven’t won a single game this season?”
They were quiet for a moment, then one kid spoke up and said, “It would be nice to win at least one game, but it doesn’t really bother me.” The other boys around him agreed. They’d enjoyed themselves and had fun. It bothered me that one kid was my son. I had hoped he was more competitive, but this was one of those moments where you have to realize this isn’t about you.
I kept telling myself that to make myself feel better as a coach; if they were having fun, then that was the point of playing rec league soccer.
Our club has a big event at the end of every season. Rec teams of all ages would gather at the fields for the last big get together. There were bounce houses, concession stands, and other fun activities for families. It was a good time.
As a coach, it was time to say goodbye to my team. We normally gathered together for a few moments, my kids and their parents. I said nice things about the season; what a joy it was to have all of them on my team, and thanking their parents for the opportunity to coach their kids. I meant this every year; in my decade of coaching, I experienced very few problems with either kids or parents. I would point out how much a particular kid improved, or how well our goalies played. I tried to find something good to say about each of them.
My last act of the season was handing out the participation trophies. I didn’t think too much about it. Each kid would walk up, I’d hand them a trophy, and we’d say goodbye. What I discovered was there were three distinct types of interactions involving the participation trophies:
The first type of kid, the most common, grabbed the trophy without a thought, as if they’d been given a bottle of water.
The second type would stop, look at the participation trophy for a moment, then look at me as if to wonder why they were getting a trophy when they didn’t win a championship.
Then there’s the third type who doesn’t want the trophy at all. They have to be forced to take it. At the end of the losing season, I had one kid who looked at me and then asked out loud, “Why are you giving this to me?”
I continued to hold the trophy out to him.
“I am required to hand these out at the end of the season.”
“We didn’t win anything.”
I looked at him firmly and said, “You have to take this trophy because if you don’t, I’ll have to take it home and I already have enough of them filling up my garage.”
He hesitated. I thrust the trophy at him.
He shrugged, gave me a look, and took the trophy. He had to have realized in that moment we were both at odds with the universe and there wasn’t a damned thing we could do about it other than play along.
Kids are smarter than we think. They understand what’s going on. They’re trapped in a world run by adults who come up with all the rules and they are required to follow them no matter how dumb they are.
One year we were told to not keep score. The kids I coached that year were five or six years old. I didn’t explicitly tell them we weren’t keeping score, it just came out in the middle of a game. One kid looked at me, and said, “What’s the score?”, to which I responded, “We’re not keeping score.” One of the other kids said, “It’s 4–2.” He didn’t have to add “the other team is winning” because all the kids knew that on account of them not being stupid. For the rest of the season, I didn’t keep score. I didn’t have to. Whenever an adult would emphasize we weren’t keeping score, the kids who kept score would ignore them. They knew who won their games and what the score was.
It’s not as if adults don’t give participation trophies to themselves.
I did the BTN 10K earlier this year. It was a struggle. I had a widowmaker heart attack in 2015, was dead for over 20 minutes. Part of my heart is dead. For me to do a 10K and finish is a triumph. I could do a 10k with my wife at any moment in time, but I signed up to do the BTN 10k because I could get the shirt and the silly towel for $20 and tell others about it. I know that there are other people who do 5Ks, 10Ks, and marathons who will wear those shirts so they can show off. They didn’t win the race. They may have beat a personal goal, then told themselves they won, but those shirts are their participation trophies.
Participation trophies have caught the ire of many because they are the physical manifestation of what we see as misguiding youth by giving them rewards without having earned them. Those trophies will destroy the world as we know it.
It’s odd how we place so much blame for the world’s problems on insignificant objects. Participation trophies. Plastic straws. Bathrooms. Taking a knee. It’s as if we realize taking on genuine problems is a lot harder than we’re willing to admit. It might involve sacrifice, which sounds bad. Perhaps we should ask some kids about it.
The next generation will be fine. Those kids I coached will turn into adults; the ones who questioned why they were given trophies without merit will probably be their leaders. Those participation trophies I handed out will do little to destroy the world. They’ll be trinkets that a kid took home to set on his shelf for a couple years. It’ll end up in the trash or his Mom will save it, then he’ll find in a box 30 years from now and remember the season he had and the other kids he played soccer with. Perhaps he’ll even remember me.
I’ve still got 30 in my garage if you want one.