It was 1996. I was in the second grade and for some awful reason my mother signed my ballet-tap-jazz loving self up for dirty, no excuses, dripping of sweat Softball. I’m sure she would claim today that I was begging to sign up, I have no remembrance of that, so take my memory for what it is. On the first day of practice, I was hit in the chin by a ball that I knew was being thrown to me. It was my first time wearing a glove and it was the first time anything that large was being thrown in my direction on purpose. “Catch!” the coach screamed, “ball!!” the other girls yelled… I still remember it like it was yesterday. I didn’t cry because ya know, it was the first day and I wanted to seem tough and softbally. I did cry when my mom picked me up because ya know, I got hit in the face with a softball. I remember telling her that I didn’t want to go back but she had already put the deposit down and my t-shirt was already being ordered… there was no turning back.
We were appropriately named “the bruisers” — I didn’t ask questions but I was certainly upset when we were playing the pink ponies or the fluttering butterflies…. they were pink and purple and looked fabulous. We were brown, our shorts were large and in charge, and our softball skill level was possibly floating around in the negatives somewhere. Telling you that we were terrible would be an understatement. We never won a game and I’m 99% sure we never touched a home plate that season. NADA. ZIP. NOTHING.
Yet, we still showed up in our shorts down to our ankles and light brown t-shirts. We gave it our all, tried our best, and moved on. At the end of the season the softball association handed out huge trophies for the obvious 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners… the rest of us didn’t go home empty handed either. We also got to bring home a trophy the size of my pinky labeled, “participation trophy.” It didn’t scream “YOU ARE A WINNER!” and it surely didn’t scream, “YOU SHOULD SIGN UP FOR SOFTBALL AGAIN!!” but it did do something to me that I think a lot of people are missing these days.
I don’t know if it’s because we were so bad or if it’s because I realized that I had zero chance surviving in the sport of softball, but I knew that the smallest trophy I received that day didn’t sit well in my stomach. It was then that my competitive drive was born. I would never again receive a participation award after that, and that was my goal.
So you can imagine my anger and confusion when all of a sudden the internet has completely destroyed the thought of a participation trophy. The purpose of the trophy or award isn’t to tell your child that they’re a winner and that they deserve to win too, rather to tell them that if they want to win… they’re going to have to work for it. It’s not something that should be glorified but to tell that child “hey good job” or “you did your best!” in a trophy form. Maybe it’s because my mom raised me in a way that trophies are just trophies, medals are just medals, and awards are just awards. It’s how hard you work, what you learned from your experience, and the friends you make along the way that matter. She grew up competitive and athletic so I can’t imagine she was thrilled to watch us completely fail weekend after weekend after weekend… but when I got the participation trophy there was no pep talk or ranting or “you don’t deserve that stupid trophy” … it was more like a , “who cares about that thing… let’s move on.”
No anger, no yelling, no dwelling. It was done and that was that. That trophy sat on my shelf with my beanie babies and was eventually joined by many other shiny (and bigger) pieces of plastic. It was an important piece of my (not so athletic) journey which is why I’m sitting here defending it today. Participating is part of the battle, and getting a small award for that should be the least of your parenting worries. Time to focus on moving up and working to find what they’re good at and start building some confidence. Because at the end of a terrible day, no one is giving you a “participation” award for surviving…. but I am pouring myself a glass and saying “cheers to you, Maxine, you’ve participated another day and you’re doing great” and tomorrow will be better.