We Lose When Everyone Wins

This has been hitting the social news recently and, with as many kiddos as I have, it's something I think about every sports season, every school year, every big gathering that includes, um, people and competition. The participation award. The congratulations-for-showing-up-and-doing-what-you-were-supposed-to-do trophy. The blue first-place ribbon, even though no score was allowed to be tracked. Why? Why do we, as adults, set our kids up to fail in this way? What good can they possibly learn from this?

I know about wanting to protect your children ... keep them safe and happy, have everyone love them, have them feel good about themselves. I get that. But there are some things children have got to learn as they grow up. Seriously. Because I see so many adults who currently lack basic human decency skills. Like integrity. And I think a lot comes back to this.

How many times have I seen an angry sport's figure throw around foul language or sports equipment over a loss? Enough times for my kids and I to have discussions about being a poor loser. How many times have I witnessed name-calling and heckling from the winner, aimed at the losing side? Enough times for my kids and I to have discussions about poor winners. But how do you learn to be a gracious winner or loser, without ever having the practice? Isn't childhood all about practice? Learning to navigate the world before you're a major player in society?

The whole point of winning: when you give something your all, and you succeed, you recognize input equals output. And it makes you feel good. If you work hard for something, it means something, has more value than when someone just hands it to you. So you don't win after giving it your all. So what? Sometimes someone is better than you are. Sometimes you have an off day. The world will not end. You do not deserve a gold medal for showing up. That's your job. You're supposed to show up. Could you imagine if the Olympic committee decided to do away with medals for the top three and decided instead to offer ribbons to everyone who qualified to participate?  It would mean nothing to be an Olympian. By society's way of thinking, not just the qualifiers should get a ribbon either, but the people who tried to make it at all.

But this erodes integrity, warps the mind to make people think they are entitled to certain things, strips away the desire to work hard. People love to be recognized, it's a fact. They like to be told, yes, you did that, and it was awesome. But even kids know something is wrong with the current system. They know if they did great or not. Until it is lambasted in their brains enough times for them to start believing they deserve something whether or not they earned it, that is.

Two things made me happy this past soccer and football season. (Okay a lot more than two things made me happy, but two things stand out.) One: my five-year-old is a natural, truly fantastic soccer player. He was a rookie this year and was one of the only kids to run the right direction, steal the ball, and score goals. No score was kept, but, by golly, if he didn't keep track of the numbers in his head. "Mama, they said we both won, but we didn't. They only got one goal and I made five." "Keep it up, kid. That's awesome. You ran so fast out their and you worked hard." I love that he knows he tried hard and made goals. I think that's good. Same thing if he didn't win; then it's: "Boy, they did great, didn't they? Did you see how that player ran so fast? They did really well." Because it's important to recognize when someone else tries hard or does a good job.

The other situation: My friend's sixteen-year-old is on his high school football team. This year they had a win. It meant nothing to them, though; they hadn't felt like they played well as a team, as individuals. They walked away from the field with little celebration and plans to try harder. The following game, they lost. But it was an awesome game. The guys gave it their all, worked cohesively, used their intended plays. They bounded off that field like they were champions. And you know what? In that moment they were. They were wise enough to recognize what matters. Not that being handed any easy win made them a better team, but that by pushing themselves to their limits, they had an amazing game even though they lost. They didn't need a participation ribbon. They already had integrity. And that's not something handed out just for showing up.