Moving house, an unpleasant task at the best of times, can have its up sides. Uncovering long-lost treasures is one of them. One such dust-laden treasure, found nestled amidst a prized bag of marbles, was my under-nines rugby league trophy that I haven't quite, as yet, been able to part with.
This discovery brought with it a nostalgic glow of youthful pride; that was, until I realised that it was a participation trophy. It was an award for showing up. The thing is, while I wasn't terrible at rugby league, contrary to the praise and glory lavished upon me with this thinly-coated plastic trinket, I was nothing special.
Perhaps it's best not to mention trophies following the result of a recent regatta in San Francisco's harbour, but their increasing abundance and decreasing value is a symbol of an age of winners-where we kids are told they are special and showing up is enough.
It wasn't always like this. The word trophy, in the original Latin, meant a sign, or monument, of victory. Furthermore, in ancient Greek it was understood to be a "monument of an enemy's defeat." That word, defeat, highlights an awkward truth: that losers exist, and sometimes, we fail.
The trick then, is teaching our kids how to fail well. Author Ashley Merryman, in a New York Times piece provocatively titled "Losing is good for you" agrees, exhorting parents to run a mile and take their kids with them if considering taking part in something where "everybody gets a trophy." In her research, Merryman found that trophies and awards "can be powerful motivators, but nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed. Instead, it can cause them to underachieve."
Examples supporting this included a Stanford study that suggested kids do indeed respond favourably to praise, however, when faced with obstacles and failure they would despair and "rather cheat than risk failing again."
To rescue kids from drowning in praise like this, Merryman thinks that trophies should be limited to, for example, best overall, most improved, and best sportsmanship awards, to show that "excellence, improvement, character and persistence" are valued. This is sound advice. When kids make mistakes, as they will inevitably do, we should not, as Merryman puts it, "spin those losses into decorated victories," but rather "help them see that progress over time is more important than a particular win or loss."
In other words, Woody Allen's famous quote that "eighty percent of success is showing up" is rubbish. Success is more than that. Sometimes we fall down, and then, it's all about getting up. Turning from my trophy to my hard-fought swirly bonker marble, won playing for keeps in the cut-throat school ground arena, I was reminded of all those marbles lost to gain that one treasure. Learning from those failures taught me more than any participation trophy ever did.
Maybe it's time to let go of my trophy after all. My swirly bonker? Never.
- (Live Matches)