Participation Medals

bjj medal

A friend and colleague of mine wrote an op-ed piece today for the New York Times entitled, “How the Trophy for Just Showing Up is Earned.”  In it, she argues for the value of so-called “participation trophies” in children’s recreational sports leagues.  This position being in response to the rise of voices in print and other media that argue such trophies are worthless. If every child receives a trophy, then the trophy signifies nothing.  The danger, they go on, is a child with an unreal sense of worth and an overestimation of their abilities and their effort.  In effect, the leagues are doing nobody a favor, especially the kids because, as one columnist states, it leads to “increases in narcissism and entitlement [as they grow up and become] college students.”  Whether these types of trophies lead to egotism or not is debatable.  There’s way too many moving parts to make that type of conclusion or to argue against it.

Reframed within the culture wars, participation trophies are signals to some people of the extent of the feminization of realms previously ruled by men.  In some circles this is referred to derogatorily as “the pussyfication of America.”  In a cultural studies class I once taught, a student turned in a brilliant paper called “The Pussyification of American Sports.”  In a clever way, the paper argued for “pussyfication” by emptying the derogatory force of the term, showing how enduring pain in a masculine sense is nothing historically and physiologically compared to the feminine.   In terms of trophies, “penisficators”  claim the pain we are unnecessarily protecting children from is the pain of losing.  Losing is good for you, as the title of the other article above, claims.  The retort by my friend’s piece is that the trophy doesn’t signal or erase the pain of the loses on the field but rather acknowledges the accomplishment of having shown up, through thick and thin and complaints and fear and bad weather and fatigue.

You won because you endured the pain associated with showing up.  You were going against yourself.  You were the opponent.  Your ego was your enemy, afraid at missing a shot or striking out or being outrun or being arm-barred or choked out, it was telling you to stay home.

Jiu-jiteiros know this fact very well.  It’s almost a mantra among some of us, the toughest men around, that you won as soon as you stepped on the mat to compete, no matter who tapped.  We jiu-jitsukas win because we participated.  Hell, how many tournaments have we gone to where it was you and one other person, and you fought, lost, but still went home proud of the “second place” medal.  Yet, even in my short 7.5 years doing BJJ, I’ve forgotten the memory of most of my matches, and even those 4th place bronze medals I received, I look at them with pride. I was courageous enough to compete, to face the possibility of losing, of losing, of continuing training, and not having quit since.

Everyone likes to use sports as a metaphor for life, or the lessons we’ll encounter in life.  Well, the big secret is that the sport itself only teaches you about the sport.   You get a trophy or a 1st place medal and the lesson learned is that the other team can’t hit a curveball or you have a great Ezekiel choke.  However, if there is a philosophy to the sport, as it is in judo, BJJ, and other martial arts, and it’s reinforced by an instructor, then there’s a lesson.  If you have a coach who speaks and teaches about things beyond the field, then there’s a life lesson.  If you have a parent who models the type of perseverance, commitment, and grit required to endure the pain and fatigue of a sport like soccer, then there’s a lesson. There’s a lesson because the referent to the metaphor is made clear.  If all those folk only speak about sport, the lesson is sports.  In the end, trophies don’t remind the child of soccer.  They remind her of the great and bizarre rush of grass and sky that is childhood.

We tough grown adults do jiu-jitsu, in part, because it reminds us of the way we played games and sports as children; and we secretly wish we could participate in life just like we do on the mat.  And maybe receive a trophy once in a while.


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