Take Your Participation Ribbon and Shove It


“The greatest thing about sports is, you play to win the game.” ~Coach Herm Edwards

Tom Brady facepalm=Super epic fail

Even if you’re not a sports fan, you have to admit Sunday’s Super Bowl (which may end up being the highest-rated TV broadcast in history) was one hell of a game. You had two great teams going at one another for all the marbles. And guess what? One team, the Giants, was the better team that day. They got the Lombardi Trophy and the trips to Disney World and the pretty girls and the hardware. The Patriots? Well, let’s just say they didn’t get nice little runner-up plaques or ribbons just for being there. They earned a long trip home and a longer offseason to mull the painful loss.

One reason I love professional sports? They are, to me, a metaphor for life. There will always be winners, there will always be losers, and nobody has to remain either for long. Sports are one of the few realms left where individual achievement is celebrated and mediocrity has no place. Greatness can be achieved by anyone, whether of aristocratic or humble origins, if he or she is willing to work hard and make sacrifices.

If you’ve not seen this classic moment with former Coach Herm Edwards, well, that’s how I feel when it comes to sports. Winning isn’t everything but it’s certainly the reason for competitive sports. Which is why I have such a beef with what I call the Participation Ribbon Generation.

We’ve all gotten one of these at some time in our lives (at least we have if we’re between the ages of 20 and 45.) Participation Award. Neat-O Student Award. 6th Place School Field Day Award. 6th place!? 6th place?! I’d have been ashamed to take the damn thing, much less proudly display it. And yet every school and kids’ sports team gives out these worthless shreds of orange or green polyester so that nobody’s feelings would be hurt. Some teams have even stopped keeping score. To which I say, why even have a game at all?

I can’t help being competitive. And before you judge me as one of those nutballs who thinks kids should be tri-letter athletes and who verbally assaults game officials, well, I’m not. I just agree with Coach Edwards that the whole point of sports is playing to win. Losing is only a greater motivation to get better and, eventually, win. Any athlete who says he or she likes losing, or doesn’t mind, is either lying or not really into sports. As the saying goes, nothing builds success like success itself.

Crouching Receiver, Hidden Football

In addition to being physically good for kids, sports teach valuable mental lessons for later in life. Learning to be a gracious winner is just as important as learning to be a good loser. Not everyone can win every game, but it’s possible to learn from mistakes. Even a winless team can be champions the next year. There’s no such thing as a set outcome in any game. We make our own destiny, not Lady Luck or the fans or the officials or the media. And kids just don’t learn these lessons in games where there are no winners or losers, where everyone is “special.” Guess what? I don’t get a participation ribbon just for showing up and doing my job every day. Hell, I’m lucky I even have a job right now. But I still strive to do the best I can, always learning and growing, so that one day I can take that next step, if you will, from second-stringer to starter. I might not have had that desire if I hadn’t been into sports.

When I did still play, I was usually on lousy teams. I earned many more sprains and torn ligaments than I ever did trophies. One year our hockey team was so bad, our coach tried to drown himself in the locker room (actually, I think it was just a bad hangover, but you get the idea.) I can’t think of a single team I played for that finished better than .500. That being said, I developed a hunger to win. If I couldn’t win, I could try and improve. Turns out most of my wins occurred away from the field or the rink anyway.

So yeah, I’m pretty much against the whole participation ribbon/plaque thing. That’s not how it works in the real world. Kids need to be encouraged and cheered on when they lose, and they need to know that champions are made through adversity. That’s much more important and valuable to a meaningless bauble.

I wasn’t rooting for the Giants, but they’ve earned their victory. Congratulations…you’ve taught all of us, even the high and mighty Patriots, an important lesson. Winners never say die, and they’re not satisfied with second place. And a 9-7 team that just barely makes the playoffs can shock the world. More than once, even.

I showed up to work and all I got was this lousy stuffed panda

What are your feelings on this year’s Super Bowl? Agree or disagree on the Participation Ribbon generation? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

As always, if you enjoyed this post, be sure to click “Like” and subscribe to P&Q so you’ll never miss another Super post…

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on February 8, 2012.

12 Responses to “Take Your Participation Ribbon and Shove It”

  1. Hmm.

    Gut instinct? I agree with you. If you’re voluntarily participated in sports as part of a competition then you go out there to win, and if you lose, well, train harder. That’s how it works.

    But the thing is, ‘sport’ encompasses a lot of things nowadays – competition and excellence, yes, but also physical exercise and, for some kids, ritual humiliation. At school, being on the losing team in PE lessons was one thing; being humiliated through the typical high school jock/nerd peeing contest was quite another. Add that to a total lack of encouragement from my family and the result is that now sport is something that happens to other people.

    And yeah, I know that makes me a bit of a quitter (not entirely, as I just concentrated on kicking ass in History and English Lit), and I’m physically unfit, but I doubt my story is atypical.

    And yet the one fond memory of High School Physical Education is an end-of-year report I received – “Matt will be the first to admit he’s not particularly gifted at this subject, but he always participates to the best of his ability”. Which, I guess, is an equivalent of a participation ribbon, but it’s one of the reasons I respect a teacher in a subject I hated – his honesty and fairness. Which, I guess, is another sport-related lesson – here’s your team, build on what you’ve got.

    So yeah, learning about competition and pushing for excellence are great lessons. But sometimes there needs to be *something* that balances out the negative ‘lessons’ learned in the way schools teach PE.

    Sorry for the epic comment… 🙂

    • I agree; that was a pretty epic comment!

      If there’s a fair compromise on the subject, I think your report encompasses it. Kid who may not be athletic need to be encouraged but not necessarily all given trophies. My experience was a little odd because I was a sort of jock/geek hybrid, and I know not all geeky types enjoy sports.

  2. I have no problem with participation ribbons, to a point. When the kids are just getting started out I think it is important to let them know just getting across the finish line is important. Once they reach the age where there is real competition involved (usually around age 11) I’d say it’s time to ditch that.

    Also I think it is important to realize that sometimes you can avoid having a competitive attitude and still be competitive. My HS x-country coach, and team, were a great example of improving just for the sake of improving helping you be competitive. His mantra was “I don’t care if we win this meet, I just want you to shave a few seconds of your last time” and guess what? We won… a lot. We were perennial sectional champs and consistent state champs. I was the number 8 runner on the team (only the first 7 count for scoring) and I could have been number one on 2/3rds of the teams in NY, simply because of coach’s style. It wasn’t about winning or losing against anyone else, just ourselves.

    That said, healthy competition teaches young ‘uns consequences for their mistakes and rewards for hard work without there being too dire of circumstances (unless the poor kid has one of those parents that is living too vicariously through them.)

  3. That’s a good way of looking at it, Christine…the age 11 cutoff is a good idea because that’s about when most kids know whether they’re cut out for competitive sports or not.

    Your coach was a wise man indeed. I wish I’d had one like him. That’s the best way to look at sports; as a way to improve oneself.

    And you found the key word in all of this, which is “healthy.” There’s a lot of unhealthy competition in sports today and it needs to stop. Healthy competition, I have no problem with.

  4. I don’t have time to write a lot here. I clicked “Like”, but was wishing there was another adjacent button labeled “My God!!! I Friggin’ Love This Post!!!”. I wouldn’t clicked that one 😀

    Can’t wait to come back and read more.

  5. Lol. See what happens when you’re in a hurry. I so meant to say, “I would’ve clicked that one”. That’s – would have- I would have clicked it, Yes?

    I’m glad I caught this. How rude I must’ve seemed.

  6. When I was a kid we didn’t all get something for participating and we turned out fine… I don’t see why everyone needs one now. Especially the older we get. Look at college bowl games! Oh you only won a few times? Heres a bowl… I love the content of this!

  7. You are exactly correct. The participation ribbon generation is not being well-served by their parents and teachers. Thankfully, people are beginning to see this now that the first generation is hitting the workforce, and questions are being asked. Society moves like a pendulum from conservative to liberal and back again (a hobbit’s tale!?) We’ll come back from the insanity of a sixth place ribbon, that much I know.

    The game was great, and I wasn’t really rooting for either team. However, it was what a Super Bowl should be. Good defense, very few mental mistakes, and great clock and ball management. I loved it!

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