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Participation Trophies

The topic of participation trophies seems to come up more and more when describing why people aged 25 and younger seem to settle for mediocrity. It's an easy, straight line to make, especially in the sports world, as a women's basketball coach proclaimed in a press conference in 2016. As in, a child is raised to believe any kind of effort deserves to be rewarded -- no matter the win-or-lose outcome -- and he or she can't tell the difference later in life.

As someone who's about to turn 40, this apparently modern idea is not one to me.

I played in an outdoor soccer league for a few years in the mid-1980s. At the end of each season, the coaches threw the team a party and gave each player a small trophy and ribbon. Neither the trophy nor ribbon said something like "Best Striker" or "Best Keeper." They were generic. Even then, as an elementary school student, I didn't think these trophies meant something grand. It was simply proof that I played on a team.

Was I rewarded for scoring two own goals in a season? No. Was our keeper rewarded for having a meltdown one day at practice where he decided to sit and pout inside the penalty area? No. The trophies were mementos of hours spent after school and Saturday mornings on a soccer field in suburban New Orleans.

If memory serves me right, there were tournaments that our team competed in. If you won them, you received really big trophies you could hoist at the end of the final match. Those were the accolades that meant something. But we never got close to such heights. I never felt left out. We were not a great team, pure and simple.

I switched from sports to band a few years later. There were no participation trophies in band, and I didn't hear of any from people I knew who played sports in school or recreational. Trophies that had value and meaning were given to those who earned them, just like those soccer tournament trophies.

I don't really know if something momentous happened in the past 20 years, aside from Columbine and 9/11, but the embrace of children's deep thoughts and feelings became very common in society. Not just what the parents, coaches, and teachers saw -- it was also what the therapists saw. Maybe it was evaluating what truly hurts or hinders children's growth, or something related. For adults who want to make the youth of today happy, the amount of praise for any effort was raised. This was not new to me, as that kind of stuff was addressed when I was young. I saw it in myself as well as other students.

Towards the end of Fred Rogers' life, a certain cable channel designed to counter-program and play devil's advocate singled out a frequent message by Rogers on his show, Mister Roger's Neighborhood: you are special. This channel thought the message gave kids an idea that any effort is good enough, and those kids expect everything handed to them as adults.

As a regular viewer of the show as a child, I never, for one second, thought Mr. Rogers said you're entitled to receive praise for everything you do. It was, you bring value to the world. Not grand or small. You have meaning to society as a whole. Also, it's OK to feel down as not everything you try leads to success at first (or at all). He told generations of kids that it is totally acceptable to own your feelings. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that idea.

No matter the generation, the basic concept of hard work -- along with the rewards of doing hard work -- is still pretty well defined. You want to get further in life? You can't half-ass it. I half-assed a lot of things in my 20s and 30s, thus explaining why a few things worked out well, surrounded by a mountain of frustration and lingering desires.

I freely admit I have struggled with how hard I should put into hard work as an adult. As in, should I be recognized or rewarded for all the things I do? Do I have a right to get defensive about what I've done and shown in a tangible way (versus how much mental energy I spent)? None of these difficulties came from ideas that Mr. Rogers or soccer trophies taught me. They came from my attempts to understand how life really is. I'm someone who didn't know the extent I -- not others -- had to put in to find success.

If you want to pinpoint a problem in modern society of something a lot of kids don't truly value, that's an easy take. If you want to take a deeper look at why young people aren't apparently as motivated as previous generations, a silly little trophy is not the endgame.

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