Recently, during our move from one house to another, our son stumbled across a black egg crate filled with dozens of small trophies from his days in youth sports
“These are my ‘showing up’ awards,” he said to my wife.
I found his remarks interesting – particularly now as he is a college graduate and out cutting his own pathway in the adult world. At one point in time, each of those trophies represented something to him – a completed season of soccer or baseball. I even remember him proudly displaying them on shelves around his room. But now, as he confesses, they are essentially meaningless to him. To him they symbolize little beyond showing up for team practices, scheduled games, and wearing the same uniform as a dozen or so other people. No single trophy symbolizes winning a national championship, a world record, or some other inarguable achievement for the history books.
And it is just this – the lesson of rewarding people for showing up I question as a misguided intention with unintended consequences by our society. What are we really teaching here?
I’m all for encouraging and helping others to succeed, but somewhere along the line in our quest to build self-confidence we decided everyone should feel as if they are an unmitigated ‘winner’. But the truth is, in the adult world, life does not work that way – therefore creating a rude and uncomfortable awakening for many.
I don’t mean to be disparaging big-hearted intentions, but life is not going to give you a trophy for merely showing up. If you want the ‘trophies’, the accomplishments that really means something to you in life, you’re going to have work harder than you ever imagined, sacrifice more than you ever dreamt possible, and get knocked down to the canvas more times than you can count. And then, instinctively, get back up and go at it again and again and again.
My son, in all of his years of youth sports, never felt that fire. While we tend to think of inserting our kids into sports or other arguably competitive activities as an exercise in getting them ready for the ‘real world’, the practice of giving out trophies for accomplishing the minimum requirements, I argue, can actually make their transition into adult life more difficult. In ways, the participant who goes into the season knowing they will take home a trophy has very little motivation to grow or feel challenged – or even lose.
I’m proud of my son’s observation of now recognizing the trophies were, in essence, a false or watered-down recognition of achievement. In today’s world he is starting at the bottom of the ladder – as he should. And what happens for him is up to him and his abilities, attitude, and resiliency.
Today his trophies sit tucked away in a storage closet with less emotional connection than a t-shirt he purchased on a clearance rack. And for me, therein lies the lesson. We value what we work hard to earn – and the only shine he now sees in his crate of trophies is a superficial reflection of light against a plastic surface.
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