I have one participation trophy, from a youth soccer league I joined when I was five. I joined the league, not because I aspired to a career of professional athleticism, but because my mother wanted me to try a sport.
I was awful at soccer. The coach called me “flower child,” because I would grab my teammates by the hand when we ran drills. The coach imagined my motives to be peace and love and friendship, when in reality I was just trying to pull the slower kids forward. My motives were not derived from the hippie upbringing he imagined had shaped me, but out of compassion for those even less athletically inclined than myself.
Too Much Reward?
Even at five I knew my trophy did not mean I was destined to be a famous soccer player.My participation trophy is the target of ridicule by smug baby-boomers who spout an “up by the bootstraps” ideology. For them, it is a symbol of mollification and complacency. They think it makes me too soft to handle the pressure of this world. This five-inch-tall piece of cheap, gold-painted plastic threatens their entire worldview.
Do they think that children don’t understand participation trophies? Do they think they don’t notice that the better players get bigger, shinier pieces of cheap gold plastic? They do. Even at five I knew my trophy did not mean I was destined to be a famous soccer player.
The trophy meant that I tried. The trophy meant that every Saturday morning, despite the skinned knee earned in that week’s practice that was still healing, I showed up to play. It meant that despite the heat and the way the grass made me itch and the fact that I had never scored a single goal, I kept going to practice. It meant I kept trying to help the slow kids run faster. It meant I kept trying.
Is it so evil to encourage a child to try by offering them a reward? Those who decry participation trophies will say that trying matters less than succeeding, but I disagree. Trying is a requirement for succeeding. To have a fulfilled life, you must try many more things than you succeed in. To accomplish anything, you must try. That trophy is not a pat on the back and a grudging “good enough.” It is a reminder of the time you spent trying.
Trying Is Good
It’s easy to pick on millennials. We enjoy a higher quality of life than any previous generation. The draft is over, there’s a vaccine for polio, and we can watch color TV on the tiny computers that live in our pockets and let us make phone calls. To the outside observer, we are soft, entitled, and complacent.
Entrepreneurs fail and try just like children in grass-stained soccer jerseys.Yet Forbes calls us “the true entrepreneur generation.” Our smartphones are loaded with more than Netflix and Buzzfeed, they’re loaded with investment apps like Acorns and business software like Square. One study showed that 63% of 20-somethings want to start a business. While they may not be currently starting their businesses, 90% of millennials recognize entrepreneurship as a mentality, meaning they’re entrepreneurial about their work in settings outside the old “entrepreneurs start businesses” model of generations prior.
Maybe this mindset is not in spite of participation trophies, but in part inspired by them. Entrepreneurs fail. They fail all the time, and they keep trying. They keep trying the same way they did when they were children in grass-stained soccer jerseys, in leagues where they earned participation trophies.