Why Participation Matters Much More Than Winning

Running Joke. A team from the 2017 Northwoods Trail Ragnar

By Angela Noel

October 12, 2017

I admit, I don’t really know who James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers is. But, he posted this in 2015 to rave reviews on Instagram: 

I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy. #harrisonfamilyvalues

I’ve heard some version of this from many people. In fact, a reporter for For the Win by USA Today put up a poll at the end of his post about another athlete, Kobe Bryant, offering his opinion of his own children’s less-than-first-place wins. Of about 700 respondents so far, more than half feel participation trophies are “bad.”

But I heartily and totally disagree. And here’s why: RAGNAR.

Ragnar began in Utah in 2004. Dreamed up by Steve Hill, his son Dan, and Dan’s college roommate Tanner Bell (incidentally, my friend Doug happens to know both the younger Hill and Tanner from his school days), Ragnar combines fitness, teamwork, and a love of the outdoors. Teams race across road or trail in a twenty-four hour relay. It’s grueling, sweaty, smelly, and glorious.

Two types of Ragnar give teams the chance to run across miles of either  pavement, while changing in a van and sleeping in school gymnasiums; or trail, camping in one spot. In the latter, runners race around trails designed to be varying degrees of difficulty: hard, punishing, and nigh-on impossible. (Okay, its not that bad, but go with me here.) Presenting different challenges, both flavors of Ragnar leave dirt in your mouth, blisters on your toes, and a curious nonchalance about changing clothes in mixed company.

Ragnar is for Runners (kind of)

I am not a natural runner. Though I like to think I am. I tend to injure myself quite a lot. Remember the post about climbing Mt. Democrat in Colorado? I had a fractured hip from running (but didn’t know it during the climb). I’ve been to dozens of sessions of physical therapy to build up strength in my gluteus medius and other hard to pronounce muscles in my hip and groin that scream bloody murder when I run. And yet, I persist. I’m not a natural runner, no. But, I am a runner. And maybe also a nut. Turns out, Ragnar is for runners and for nuts. Thus, I fit right in.

Tent city at Ragnar 2017
Dan ‘the Danimal’ Sisel takes his standard selfie with wife, Jayme, in the background. Our tent city lined up in a neat row on the right.

I joined a team whose members had run several road relays and were eager to enter their second trail Ragnar. Some of them I knew, like Dan and Jayme Sisel; Jayme’s cousin, Megan; my husband Paul, and my brother-in-law, Ryan. Others I was meeting for the first time. Though many in this group had run together for years of these events, some were relay-virgins like myself.

The Race
The Red Loop of the Northwoods Trail Ragnar
I stopped for water on the 7.6 mile Red Loop of the Northwoods Trail Ragnar. This is a sample of the terrain. Beautiful, but dangerous.

For months, Paul and I ran up and down trails near our home to prepare for the race. Since I’d never run more than eight miles at any one time in my life, and I’d done that only once–ever–I knew I had my work cut out for me. Not only would I need to be ready to run close to eight miles of trail for my first run. I’d also need to run another five, and finish it off with an “easy” three in the same twenty-four hour period. That’s close to sixteen miles of tree roots, rocks, switchbacks, and hills.

Each of us would run at least once (and most twice) through darkness with only the light we brought with us–headlamps and flashlights–to illuminate the night.

No training would prepare me for this, not really. Grit and grit alone would see me to the finish line. Or drop me on my sorry gluteus maximus (and medius) in a puddle of sweat and tears.

Becoming a Ragnarian

But it wasn’t just grit, in the end, that pulled me through. It was the miles lined with well-wishers along the path. It was my teammates, who joked around a picnic table about poison dart frogs, playground bullies, folding clothes, toddler tantrums, piñatas, and zero-turn lawn mowers. The ibuprofen I took to manage yet another injury, and the endless water we had to pour on ourselves and into our bodies to combat the record ninety-degree heat, helped, too. But, nothing compared to rounding a turn and having people I knew, and people I didn’t, clapping for me.

My times were terrible–or so I assume because I don’t even know what they were. Our team consisted of some talented runners. Some of whom blazed through their relay legs like phoenix rising from the ashes. They seemed almost untouched by the heat and the exertion of the miles of dirt and stone. And yet, I know they suffered too. They dug deep. They strove.

Team MARS from the 2017 Northwoods Trail Ragnar
Team MARS (Middle-Aged Runners of Suburbia) From left: Brad, Ryan, Angela, Megan, Andrea, Oliver, and Jenny (and not pictured here, Jon)

Each worked to do what he or she could to keep the team going. Few worried about their times, and those who did, did so only to achieve personal milestones. No one complained about a thirteen or a fifteen minutes mile. Everyone celebrated that that mile had been eaten, been beaten, been conquered.

The team raced, not to win, but to be a part of something. We raced to participate in something larger than ourselves. Racing wasn’t about a trophy. It was about teamwork, family, commitment, grit, and most of all, heart.

Participation Trophies All Around

So to the people out there that complain about participation trophies; who say that being second best or fourth best isn’t good enough; who insist that just “trying your best” should win a child no awards, I say: is it really about the trophy?

Giving a child (or an adult) a trophy or a medal for showing up doesn’t mean he or she won’t keep trying to improve. It simply commemorates the effort. By focusing on the distribution of tokens or praise we miss the point. It’s not the trophy that leads kids or adults into thinking “just showing up” is enough. It’s not the trophy’s fault. To me, it’s an attitude of entitlement and an aversion to effort we have to squash. Parents that tell children they’re special and important without encouraging effort and achievement exacerbate the problem. And yet, we need to provide opportunities to explore without making “winning” the only goal.

Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance says this: “So, parents, parents-to-be, and non-parents of all ages, I have a message for you: Before hard work comes play. . . . In other words, even the most accomplished of experts start out as unserious beginners.” When passion is found, perseverance follows.

If parents, and culture as a whole, encourage growth and effort–incremental improvements with deliberate practice–children will see the trophy for what it is: a thing that gathers dust over time.

None of us know our limits until we test them. We test them not by seeking to be the winner in a field of losers, but by exposing ourselves to experiences that grow our capacity to imagine what is possible if we only just tried. And then, tried again.

By the time I finished my legs of the relay, I knew at least three of my toenails were likely to fall off. I had a blister the size of a silver dollar on my foot, and an ache in my hip that would cause me to limp for two weeks afterwards. But hanging that stainless steel spork/bottle opener participation medal around my neck felt like a million bucks.

Northwoods Trail Ragnar Medal
The spork/bottle-opener participation medal each Ragnarian received for the 2017 Northwoods Trail Ragnar

A few days after we returned home, I sent this text to the team:

“Here’s what’s really upsetting to me: I’m still hobbling around a bit with some kind of injury and I just thought to myself, “Gosh, I wish I had a Ragnar to look forward to.” WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?”

I know exactly what’s wrong with me: I participated. And I’ll never be the same again.

 

Your turn: How do you feel about participation trophies? Have you ever tried something so difficult you weren’t sure you could succeed? What does teamwork and participation mean to you?

Featured photo of Team Running Joke from left: Kyle, Rob, Kevin, Paul, Angela (me), John, Dan, and Jayme.

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Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

43 thoughts on “Why Participation Matters Much More Than Winning”

  1. That sounded like an awesome experience, Angela. It was sad to read that post about the sportsman who thought his children should earn their trophies by winning rather than from getting involved. In December I’ll be taking part in a powerlifting competition. I know that there are going to be people there lifting far more than me, but I’ll be proud to take part and improve for ME. Just because I’m less like to go home with a medal, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t bother participating. It’s sad because these attitudes can give children real problems with their self-confidence. What ever happened to doing something just for the love of it? Why does there have to be a gold medal at the end. Well done!

    1. Wow! I’m so inspired by your upcoming competition. I can’t imagine how much hard work you must put in. The will to improve because we know our personal best has not yet been reached. We just don’t know what we’re capable of until we try! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I know I’ll chat with you before the competition in one forum or another–but a giant GOOD LUCK to you.

  2. Angela, I’m not weighing in on one side or the other, and you know that I come from the perspective of an educator. So, bear that in mind as I proceed. First, there are many activities, like the one you describe, that create a challenge for the participant – something that causes them to stretch, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. When a person ventures out of his/her comfort zone and puts forth real effort towards an end goal, that deserves to be rewarded – perhaps with a medal, or a diploma, or a physically fit body, or simply a feeling of accomplishment. That being said, there are many instances when well-meaning adults, not wanting to offend or hurt anyone’s feelings, over compensate for what amounts to “just showing up.” As a professor, I had a good number of students who expected an A simply for turning in an assignment. They literally emailed me, “but I spent 5 hours on it!” Ok, well, you still have to do it correctly 🙂 I could give more examples, but my point is that we have, perhaps unwittingly, created a generation of entitlement (not everyone, but many) – at least from my vantage point. When we give an over-abundance of praise and reward to those whose efforts don’t warrant it, we are definitely not doing our children any favors. Success does take effort, as you described. If your teammate had “just shown up” and expected a medal, I think there would have been some push back. Thank you, though, for your writing and giving me the opportunity to weigh in!

    1. You’re absolutely right! I’m so glad you weighed in. Handing out awards for little to no effort is a societal flaw and leads to exactly the kind of entitlement you articulate. A friend of mine and I had this exact conversation after she read the post, too.
      It seems to have sparked lots of in-person or sort-of in-person conversations among groups. Which is AMAZING!
      I definitely believe the symbol (the trophy, the medal, the grade) isn’t the point. The point is to build character, to try things that are hard, and play with different boundaries. When we hit upon the thing we can’t let go, the skill we want to keep practicing no matter what the “reward”–that’s where the magic is.
      I definitely don’t think this post is the definitive word on the real value of a specific symbol like a participation trophy. But I definitely do hope it inspires the conversation. Thank you so much for reading and adding your thoughts. It means a lot to me!

  3. People get participation trophies all the time – for example, at a job some get paid the “most”, but everyone gets paid.
    I loved your tale of teamwork – very moving!

    1. That’s an excellent point. I love that. And you’re exactly right. There’s the “ante” for the effort–the exchange of labor for something of value (whatever that may be) and then there’s passion, persistence, perseverance. . . those efforts result in something so much more important than trophies. Maybe it’s more money, but maybe it’s just the satisfaction of hard work done well. Thank you so much for adding your thought–I count on your insight.

  4. First of all, I am so impressed by your finishing of the Ragnar! I have friends who do the Ragnar every year. I love to hear about their experiences, and love seeing pictures. Your post is no different. Awesome job! If I were ever to do a race (and I’m not sure this will ever happen), the Ragnar would be my choice. I love the outdoors, love working with a team, and I love when everyone is so great about encouraging, pushing, and guiding each other.

    I do have to say that I am one who disagrees with the whole concept of participation ribbons, medals, and trophies. It has caused children to expect rewards even after a less-than stellar performance, doesn’t allow for children to learn how to lose, and it takes away from the excitement and importance of a first or second place medal or trophy. This mind-frame has done quite a number on our local soccer club.

    As of two years ago, no recreation teams are allowed to keep score. This is to “prevent children from feeling defeat and coaches from becoming too competitive” according to our developmental director. At the end of the season, there is a culminating tournament where scores are not kept, and therefore teams cannot win or lose games. Every child is rewarded a medal to hang around their necks. Do the kids like them? Sure! Do they mean the same to them as what medals used to mean to us? Absolutely not.

    Children in our soccer club are missing out on many important life lessons:
    -They miss out on the excitement of keeping score. Young kids, especially, love keeping score (I know from the kids I used to teach in my elementary physical education classes).
    -They miss out on the experience of learning how to lose, and knowing that losing is okay. In fact, many important skills are learned when players play against better players and teams.
    -They miss out on the experience of the excitement of winning games, and learning how to win graciously.
    -They miss out on the experience of earning a ribbon, medal, or trophy for being at the top.
    -They miss out on the feel of a competitive game. A game close in score is usually very competitive and VERY exciting. We can’t have competition without scores.
    -They miss out on playing the actual game of soccer! How can these new little soccer players play soccer without keeping score, or winning or losing games? How sad is this?

    I like to think that children can be coached to learn from defeat, be gracious with a win, and be proud of their individual and team achievements without receiving a medal. I know there were many soccer games I played in that I didn’t win, but was extremely proud of the way I played and with the way my team played. In my opinion, the participation medals need to go.

    1. Thanks, Erin! So many good points and so many sides to a complex issue. My son, for example, ran a mile for the first time. He was awarded a ribbon for the accomplishment of finishing the race. He was proud of the ribbon. He’d done something he’d never done before. He participated. Where is that ribbon now? It’s in the garage. He forgot about it. It had meaning at the time, but not a lasting one. Because, as you say, the sense of accomplishment had passed. The symbol, ultimately, has only the meaning we assign to it.
      I agree, entitlement is a problem. Avoiding the pain of defeat is a problem, we need these things to build character and resolve. But, the symbol isn’t the issue in my view. It’s just a token. The issues is parents and society stressing either competition at all costs OR protecting fragile self-esteem at all costs. Both poles are dangerous. The excellent book by Angela Duckworth on Grit is worth the read.
      This is one of the topics that I think we can safely say there are lots of ways to be right. We, you and I, want the same things: gritty kids who see effort as important towards success. Sometimes kids, like my son, really dig the recognition. But it’s up to parents to say, “Great job! What’s next?”
      I’m so glad this post is stirring up some great conversation. We should plan a walk and talk more about it. 🙂

      1. That would be wonderful, Angela! I’m always up for a good walk outside. After I wrote my comment, I was thinking about your title, which I completely agree with. Participation IS more important than winning, and yes, for children, their reactions to participation, winning, and losing are highly dependent on the parents and/or coaches guiding them in their journey.

  5. What an experience! I think it’s those terrifying, impossible challenges, ones where the very act of finishing is more powerful than any trophy, that truly make us. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Ragnar sounds awesome! Well done you! And as you say it was your taking part & putting 100% effort in and completeing it to the best of your ability that is to be commended. Whilst, I do also worry about “entitlement culture”, I think the pressure that comes with telling a child you win or you don’t deserve my pride is incredibly damaging to a child’s self esteem which would most probably be carried on into adulthood. As long as my child is putting all her effort in and working/fighting as hard as she is capable, I do not care if she wins or not. Her effort is what she should be congratulated on & in turn nurtured. Besides plenty of children don’t have the physical ability to win a race, so they may never have a hope of winning. Only one person/team can ever win, are we saying all the other people/teams that don’t win, don’t deserve any praise despite their efforts? Unless you’re a professional sportsperson, winning really isn’t everything. Great post Angela x

    1. Thank you! You articulated that perfectly. I think competition in most respects needs to be dialed back quite a lot. There is value in being at the top of one’s game, but the emphasis on winners and losers creates an unnecessary division between what we see as “good” and “bad.” If I win, everyone else loses. Hooray for me, but how lonely! In some cases that makes sense, I have to “win” a new job. But that’s not about saying everyone else is a “loser” they just weren’t the right fit.
      In sporting events, when one team or individual “wins” it means on that day at that time, they were the best prepared and the conditions all worked for them. It doesn’t mean they are somehow superior to all other humans forever and ever. That’s where I think we get all mucked up. Winning is a moment in time. Participation, and continued effort towards improvement, lasts far longer and means much more. When winning is a badge we wear like a status symbol, we seem more like cave men and women fighting for the last scrap of mammoth meat.
      I don’t really think I have a perfect answer. But in my perfect world, winning and achievement don’t disappear entirely, but they become less about status and judgment and more about contribution to others.

      1. Indeed- winning is a moment in time & it does not define a person, but the effort that someone puts in can do somewhat. Yes I absolutely agree, winning should be more about its contribution to others rather than status. A real thinker again, Angela x

  7. Wow, I loved your perspective on this topic. This has changed my own viewpoint on participation trophies. You are so right in saying that it is only acknowledging the effort. I loved this piece, sharing on my FB page.

    1. Thanks, Ophira! I really appreciate the share. I’d love to learn from others–as I definitely think different people come at this from different backgrounds and experiences. I’m glad you found something of value here. Thanks so much for reading and adding your thought!

  8. Well your experience was pretty amazing Angela! I have to say I agree with participation awards but sometimes as a teacher I see kids who have had EVERYTHING celebrated and rewarded at home… even though there was no need!
    Those kids don’t understand the meaning of working towards an award, and the ultimate pleasure and pride you feel upon receiving something you have made an effort to achieve.
    Those are the ones who show no pleasure for their fellows who win something after working hard… because they didn’t get something too…

    1. That’s an excellent point, Ritu. When we award things that take no effort it stands to reason that we wouldn’t understand how hard others work to achieve. Encouraging empathy makes such a difference!
      I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to have those people cheering for me at the end of a long, hot run. They knew the effort it took and it mattered to me that I didn’t let them down. It seems obvious that we’d want to encourage others, but your point that kids need to develop this is well made. Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

  9. I was raised with the attitude if you sign up for something you see if through. You do your best and you do not quit as people are counting on you. Whether I won or lost it was seeing it through and finishing the project/team/whatever that was instilled in me. I still have this attitude and it is one of my strengths – commitment.

    1. Excellent! I am sure the people who could count on you felt the impact of your strength and were encouraged in turn. I think that’s what happens when we participate and put our best efforts in–we all help drive the wheel of contribution. Thank you for adding your thought and experiences.

  10. What a fabulous and challenging experience. Well done you though for participating. All I could think about was blisters and did you have enough plasters? I think the whole medals things has gone crazy. All kids at my daughter’s old school got given medals at sports day. I think it sets the wrong mindset. You are right – it is all about the participation.

    1. Hi, Lucy! I had so much of the stuff we call “moleskin” all over my feet I’m not sure I had any skin exposed by the end!
      I hear you on the awards for everyone thing. Too much awards for too little effort can get out of control. For my own son, I want him to understand the value of intrinsic motivation. Sure and award or a trinket is nice, it commemorates the effort, but the real satisfaction comes when no one’s watching and you know you still did your best. Such a balance.

  11. That sounds like an experience you’ll never forget! I agree with you about the attitude of entitlement and that parents need to instill the proper attitude as well. Kids (and adults, too) have to understand that they can’t just expect something. It really is about a lot more than winning. Winning isn’t what’s important.

    1. Thanks for reading! I try and pay attention when my son seems to expect a “prize” for everything. When we go down that path, I know we need to talk more about how sometimes we do things because it just feels good to work hard, not because someone will see the effort, but because the effort itself brings joy. The balance between acknowledging the effort and OVER indexing toward awards for everything can be tough to strike as parents. Thank you for adding your thought!

  12. Ragnar sounds really fun! You had such a supportive, fun sounding team! 😀

    I just had a chat about this to my husband. He HATES participation medals. He said the main reason was because he was given a certificate for trying hard at French at school. He was rubbish at French and was really disappointing to be recognised for the one subject that he was so bad at (he still seems to be mad about it now!) He says he was the best in the class at science, so he’d much rather be recognised for that.

    I agree that participation IS more important than winning. I still think it can be good to recognise the winners. I think most schools do a good mix of trophies for winners AND recognition for people that try. My husband probably won’t agree though.

    1. You’ve really articulated that point well. I had a similar experience as your husband in school. In something I had no interest (and no real skill) I was recognized. It made me think the people just didn’t know me or know what they were talking about–like now I was suspicious if I could trust them. So I do see his perspective. When everyone “wins” does anyone win?
      But, you’ve hit on the balance I think. We can recognize the effort through a symbol–like “hey, I see you trying hard.” AND recognize excellence, too. It definitely needs to be both.
      In a small way, Ragnar kind of did this. The groups who ran the “ultra” version had an extra convenient port-o-potty right on the raceway. Only the people putting in the super-extra effort could use it! Sometimes the smallest of things can make a huge difference!

      1. The ultra version sounds mad!!

        I think the other thing to take into account is the age of the children. Young children really do need the extra recognition that they have tried their best…but older kids are more likely to be suspicious of receiving an award that they don’t feel like they have earned.

  13. SOunds like a great experience. I have always wanted to run but I really don’t enjoy it. Although I wish I did it seems like such a wonderful way to stay fit, push yourself and reach goals. lol things that I do love. Good for you 😊

    1. Thanks, Steph. Running is fun for me now, but I sure hated it for YEARS. It makes a big difference when it feels like you’re a part of something bigger. Thanks for reading!

  14. I wish I could “like” this a hundred times!! Girl, preach!! The participation trophy BS is allllll about entitlement! Yes, it’s important to praise and recognize effort, but just showing up is not enough effort in my opinion. With that logic, all students who dragged themselves to school all across the nation should be receiving an award for simply showing up to school. Nope. I don’t get an award for showing up to work every day! And, as you say, sometimes someone’s best effort is just not enough. Kids need to learn that this is not the end of the world or the end of the line! They need to learn to keep pushing. I fear for what kind of world we are creating with the participation trophy mentality.

    1. Hi, Katie! It is a mentality– where we see the trophy as the end goal. It’s never about the “thing” at the end. It’s about the effort, the contribution, the passion, and most of all (at least to me) the way we work together to do something great. Thank you for reading and for wanting to like it a hundred time. 🙂

  15. Brilliant reading about the amazing challenge you went through! It sounds so agonising but so fun too! Well done!

    With regard to rewards for general participation, I do think, more often than not, it is deserved. I see some comments here saying kids need to learn that they don’t deserve praise for everything they do, and it leads to entitlement. In some cases then yes, OK, I see that. But there are many cases where children get little to no praise at home, they don’t get any encouragement. And they perhaps need lifting up the most 💙💙 enjoyed the read Angela xx

    1. Hi, Em! I’ve really enjoyed reading all the perspectives here. You hit on an important point: there is no one “right way” to encourage children or adults. A blanket approach, rewarding everyone the same, or withholding praise or awards entirely both seem to lead to the same place–no one’s much better off.
      One of the things I’ve learned from reading all the comments is the importance of paying attention to what an individual needs. Age matters, the goal matters, the skill level of the individual matters . . .
      You took a different spin here that I really like–what about all the kids for whom that participation medal is the first they’ve seen of some kind of symbol of encouragement? We can’t know the impact. But we can be aware of the kinds of gritty, thoughtful people we want to be and we want our kids to grow into.
      Thank you so much for adding your insight! Very, very thoughtful.

  16. I do like the idea of participation trophies. Especially when hard work & effort has been put in. I also think it’s important to teach children how to accept losing sometimes. “It’s someone else’s turn to win today, you came 3rd and that’s okay.” It’s all about praise and encouragement really isn’t it!

    1. Thanks, Gloria! That’s an excellent point. Celebrating with others and being a good sport is truly one of the best skills children (and adults) can learn to practice.

  17. Great article. I suppose it depends on what you think a ‘participation trophy’ is for. I always looked at them as ‘thank you’s’ for coming out and being part of the team, not as awards or rewards.

    I agree that when you find your passion, persistence will naturally follow.

    1. Hi, Rebecca. Great point! How we think of the symbol is really the crux of the issue. So much of this whole thing comes from our own understanding of the value of the effort–do we do it because of the reward? Or for the effort itself? One of the signs the Ragnar organizers pepper the course with, along with mile markers, says “Remember, you paid to do this.” Or something to that effect. I love that. Because it underscores that everything we do is a choice. I chose to be at that event, I even paid a good amount of money to do it. The “trophy” is, in a very real way, a “thank you” for being part of a community event. Thank you for adding your perspective–great way to think about it.

I love hearing from you! Please share your thoughts.