Scarcity and Participation Trophies

Three years ago, I wrote about jealousy, a topic that fascinates me. I shared my belief that accepting our feelings of envy and exploring them can be surprisingly freeing and insightful.

Last November, I was scrolling on Instagram and discovered a beautiful post by the amazing artist and writer Sophie Lucido Johnson. She linked jealousy with the concept of scarcity, which got my brain percolating.

Three months ago I decided to write about the 2012 frenzy in professional basketball known as “Linsanity.” Despite being a little late to the party on that one, I felt there was something to be learned from Jeremy Lin’s brief period of transcendence.

I think these topics are connected, that they have similar lessons to convey, and my mind has been slowly putting the pieces together over the years. Then, a random story I heard served as the missing piece that started to fill in the picture.

The story involves a girl who threw away her participation trophy and told her soccer teammates that they should do the same because the trophies were meaningless. Stories like this are meant to elicit cheers of “right on!”—but this one just made me sad.

Our culture has a complicated relationship with participation trophies in kids’ sports. Lots of people think these trophies diminish and deter achievement, while other folks believe they endorse and encourage effort.

When I was a kid, I was tiny and couldn’t throw or catch a ball to save my life, so I hated the team sports we were forced to play in gym class. As an adult, I haven’t had to deal with this issue much due to my lack of experience as a sports parent. When my stepson was young, he briefly played baseball and basketball, so I did attend a few games, where I had the opportunity to ponder the advantages of competitive athletics from a new perspective.

I now believe that, if handled properly (which is clearly a big ask), kids’ sports can have tons of benefits. Research on girls who play sports bears this out.

First, we have to recognize that the vast majority of kids who play team sports are not going to win “real” trophies, medals, or championships. They are not going to go on to play team sports in college or get drafted into the big leagues or compete at the Olympics.

Visions of elusive medals can help bring out the best in some contenders, but do we truly believe that athletics exist only to reward those who triumph?

The reason sports are tightly woven into education and communities is not to help funnel the top performers into future careers or to channel the energy of competitive kids and parents (though these objectives certainly play a part). We offer team sports to children because they are a hands-on tool for teaching collaboration, responsibility, dedication, and resilience.

If a child is putting in the time and supporting their teammates, a participation trophy can be a concrete way to acknowledge their undertaking. While kids are still developing both physically and mentally, taking a hard line on how there can only be one winner seems counter-productive.

And what if we carry this notion of scarcity outside the sports arena? We may find that school and work and even hobbies become far more stressful than need be.

A belief in scarcity can cause us to put off or give up entirely on a project because we fear that we will never be the best. Scarcity can make us jealous of the success of others, even our friends, because it seems as if there is only so much good fortune to go around.

We can and should pat ourselves on the back when we get a promotion, earn a degree, or find new ways to stretch and grow. But I would like to see every one of us embrace the spirit behind the participation trophy and give ourselves frequent accolades for all the myriad things we do to get through each day. Because maybe, just maybe, life itself is found in moments of pure participation.   

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