In defence of the participation trophy

I haven’t had reason to think of the concept of participation trophies in a long time, not since we millennials grew so commonplace in the workplace and adult life that older generations found it necessary to stop mocking us and our millennial ways (remember? We ruined everything? We ate too much avocado toast? We were soft from growing up in a world of participation trophies?)

However, in one of those funny life coincidences, the other day the Nike Run Club app almost exactly mirrored a conversation I had had with Hayden just a couple of days previous and got me thinking about participation trophies a whole lot. I was out running and was surprised – in a very good way – to hear Coach Bennett, halfway through my run, say right in my ear something along the lines of, “you are so much more than your numbers.” It both resonated with me and immediately reminded me of what Hayden and I had been talking about, with virtually the same example – for us, it was acknowledging that we as humans are so much more than simply a pile of achievements, stacked one on top of the other. When we pay too much attention to the achievement and not the process – the participation, if you like – we risk devaluing ourselves and others so much, and pulling the focus from where it should be – how amazing people are – to only what they accomplish.

Hayden and I can both lapse into being too achievement focused and I’m doing all I can to ensure we don’t let that often unhelpful outlook trickle down to Amelie. Considering who she is, I don’t think that’s going to be an easy task. At the age of five, she is already very focused on winning and being the best. Part of me is shocked – already?! – and part of me recalls that she has always been this way, even as a baby – unwilling to do anything until it was mastered. One day when she was eight months old we put her down and she crawled – near perfectly, and for the first time – across a wide expanse of floor and that was it. She knew how to crawl. Exactly the same thing happened with walking. Sometime between 9-12 months she uttered her first word, then another, and once again that was it – she was just talking. When she was about 18 months old I took her to a market, and while we waited in a queue for coffee, chatting away, an impressed woman questioned me as to how many words she had. “All of them?” I hazarded as my guess – I honestly didn’t know counting the number of words a baby could say was a thing, because we never went through that phase. Just like crawling, just like walking, Amelie started speaking and that was it: she knew how to talk.

I say all this not to brag (well, not only to brag – I am, of course, very proud of her) but to wonder at how she either skipped or hid from us her process of learning. Did she sit there, babbling away but refusing to try actual language until she knew she had it? Did she rehearse the crawl and the walk over and over in her mind before she would allow herself to try it in real life?

I really think that might be the case. She works things out, preferably by herself, and she’s also a product of Hayden and me. Amelie loves a ta-da moment. She wants to disappear into her room and get herself ready in the morning, or clean up her room without us seeing or even suspecting, until she’s ready – and then, she opens the door, she pulls back the curtain, and ta-da. She is ready to wow and amaze. The mess, the process, the rehearsal – all that is to be hidden and dismissed.

And I am exactly the same, and, to a slightly lesser extent, so is Hayden. We want to present the impressive and pretend the steps to get there never happened.

But as an adult, it is impossible to live life that way. Even just thinking about a work environment: you’re a jerk if you don’t give others a say in the process well before you reach the presentation stage (I know. I’ve been that jerk). And life generally can be very two steps forward, one step back, or one step forward and two steps back, or something far less linear again. Being focused solely on the achievement – the win – is to de-emphasise the importance of the process to such a degree it’s as if it never happened. It’s a climax with no story. And it bears no relation to anyone’s reality.

So then – why not highlight the process? Why not participation trophies? What better way to celebrate the fact that merely showing up, day after day, is a win in itself?

I am a millennial, and I have a couple of participation trophies myself, and I am proud of them. They were definitely earned. The first I got for my participation in the Auckland Marathon 11k race in 2019, and the second for my participation in the same race in 2020. My time in 2020 was around a minute slower, which severely disappointed me at the time. But looking back and considering non-linear paths to success – well, running with a faulty immune system is a pretty good example. A year of running for me is often just a year of setbacks and sporadic sickness, interspersed with a lot of disappointing runs and a few good ones. Yet I keep doing it, and that is where my success lies – in the story, in the process.

Incidentally, the medals (my participation trophies!) from these runs live in Amelie’s dress-up box. She refers to them as the medals I ‘won’. I’ve never bothered to correct her – it didn’t seem necessary. I don’t think she’s wrong, but I do know her five year old brain has a very firm definition of winning as coming first. She might currently have a flawed image of what that win looks like, but for her sake and for mine, it’s up to me to explain the glory in the full story and own that participation trophy.

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