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My Two Cents on Participation Awards

Participation Awards
By Gabe Guo

There is an old saying that goes, “You can’t win at everything.” Then why do we still have participation awards? Indeed, in today’s modern society, there exists a stigma that mediocrity must be rewarded, such that the self-esteem of young children (and even some high schoolers) is not crushed and utterly destroyed. But is that reasoning really rational? Why must we give prizes to our youth for doing next to nothing? Does it even help them in the long run? I, for one, am strongly opposed to participation awards. They reward mediocrity in a world where being “just okay” at something doesn’t cut it anymore. But before we proceed, here’s a disclaimer. I’m pretty average at a lot of things. But that’s okay. I recognize that. I’m good at some things, and not so good at others. All I can do is accept that and try to get better at those things. I don’t want to patronized with some certificate of participation, and I don’t want false hope from those awards, either. Okay, now we can get on with the issue.

If team sports are supposed to build character, the participation awards given out at the end of the seasons accomplish exactly the opposite of that. They promote the development of unrealistic expectations in kids’ young, impressionable minds, setting them up for disappointment in the adult world. How exactly do they do that, you ask? Great question. Participation awards essentially tell kids that just being there for something merits a reward, regardless of what effort they put into it. Guess what? Life doesn’t work like that. You don’t get good grades just by showing up at school every day, only to have everything your math teacher says go in one ear and out the other. Your dad didn’t get his long-coveted promotion just by coming to work and lurking by the water cooler all day. LeBron James didn’t win three rings just by jogging with minimal effort through every single one of his practices. You know how they really got all those things? I’ll give you a guess. Hard work. Somebody’s mere presence does not and will not make any contributions to the common goal of a team. But that’s what participation awards teach. By getting these prizes, kids are conditioned to believe that they are entitled to everything. They develop a mindset that you don’t need to work hard to be successful in life. Then, when they enter the real world, they discover that not everything comes so easily. They are utterly shocked by this realization. Many become depressed. Some give up entirely on contributing to their jobs, slowing down society’s progress. Surely one wouldn’t want this to happen to another generation of American youth.

Secondly, participation awards defeat the entire purpose of competitive events, whether they be team sports or music festivals or academic decathlons. According to Google, an award is “a prize or other mark of recognition given in honor of an achievement.” In other words, it is something to be given to the best competitor(s) for their greatness. If everybody gets an award, then it is not really an award anymore. In essence, the best athlete (or mathlete) on the court is treated the same as the worst player on the court. This totally nullifies the significance of whatever trophy or certificate the competitors receive. There can only really be one winner. If everybody is a winner, then nobody is really a winner. The best player (in music or sports) probably worked incredibly hard to reach the levels (s)he is at, and shouldn’t that hard work be recognized? We’re talking blood, sweat, tears, and countless hours in the studio or gym perfecting his or her craft. But when we give kids participation awards, we say, “Okay, I know that he worked much harder than you and probably deserves this prize much more than you do, but I’ll give you the same trophy as he gets, because everybody’s a winner. Right?” No, hypothetical little league baseball coach (Insert face palm). You’re not right. Success should be recognized, but not mediocrity.

In essence, participation awards are detrimental to the characters of kids and unfaithful to the spirit of competition. So I encourage you to look at your trophy case (or shelf, depending on how many things you win) and consider the awards for a second. Which ones did you really win? Which ones are you really proud of? Which ones did you really put your best effort into achieving? Keep those. Trash the others. Your display may seem more barren, but at least it will be more meaningful.

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