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.”
And while I agree that recognizing everyone for every little thing is both unnecessary and possibly detrimental, I disagree that participation doesn’t deserve its own kind of reward. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.