The Dangerous Myth Of Participation Trophies: My Story

The humble participation trophy has taken on a twisted meaning over the past few years, as it's gone from "shiny thing we give six-year-olds at the end of their soccer season" to a powerful weapon in the ongoing War on Millennials. Participation trophies, if my Aunt Cathy is to be believed, are a stupid reward that parents feel compelled to give their below-average children, and are symbolic of how complacent and unmotivated my generation is. They also apparently prevent any chance of you becoming a functional, helpful member of society.

She may have a point. How are millennials going to put a man on Mars if we're so lazy and unimaginative? Well, I have to admit, not in a million years would I have the creative brainpower to think I'd need to hand out participation trophies like the ones sitting on my shelf.

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5
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society Read-A-Thon

The Trophy:

Isaac Cabe

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Man, I really hate to open by dissing a group like the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, but this pink piece of crap was sitting at the front of my shelf, and was among the first trophies I ever received. This, for better or worse (mostly worse), became the standard by which I would judge all other trophies. Look at how goddamned regal that thing is. I would've kicked a genie out of it if I thought that he would get it dirty. My only complaint is that in 2001, I was eight years old and still subscribed to the idea that colors had genders. I would have infinitely preferred a red trophy.

Gilmanshin/iStock
You can tell this one just repels cooties.

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In second grade, this lady came to our school to talk about multiple sclerosis and tell us about the Multiple Sclerosis Read-A-Thon, which the National Multiple Sclerosis Society was going to be sponsoring at our school that year. She began to explain that for every book we read, we could get a family member or neighbor or someone to sponsor a small amount of money toward MS research. It was a pretty good cause.

The problem is that I received this trophy for all the wrong reasons.

Why I Hate This Trophy:

I was thrilled out of my skull about this Read-A-Thon. I didn't care all that much about MS at the time, because I was eight years old and it's really kind of difficult to explain devastating medical conditions to, and this is worth repeating, a room full of eight-year-olds. What I did care about was the reward at the end. I grew up about an hour away from SeaWorld Ohio (which totally existed for some reason, I swear to Christ), and the prize for reading enough books was a free trip to SeaWorld. They may not give a flying fishy fuck about orca health or occupational safety, but they were sure as shit ready to help out the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Good on you for that at least, SeaWorld.

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Shamu #376 is dancing in celebration. Because you made him.

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Anyways, I was often forced to hide my love of reading as a child, but this could very well have been the thing that let me read in the open for once. Unfortunately, all the other kids in my crappy rural Ohio grade school (as far as I could tell) thought this was a pretty lame way to trick them into picking up books. If they were going to be expected to pick up copies of Holes and Charlotte's Web, dolphins had better come to their house and congratulate them personally for going so above and beyond.

So I read the minimum number of books I needed to get my ass to SeaWorld, and today I have a shitty six-inch pink participation trophy that reminds me of how much of a page-turning outcast I was. SeaWorld Ohio (and all the theme parks that came after it) have left a creepy abandoned complex behind. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society probably would've been better off spending the money they used on these trophies on MS research instead.

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4
Literally All Of My Sports Trophies

The Trophies:

Isaac Cabe

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The only sport (and now that I think about it, the only extracurricular activity) that my K-8 school offered for boys was basketball, which was pretty ideal for a tiny-ass school that had about a dozen boys per grade. My eighth-grade trophy is on the far left there, I took seventh grade off with a broken sense of self-confidence as the other boys hit growth spurts and I did not ankle, and then the three trophies in the middle take us back to fourth grade, our first year of organized basketball.

We had what I'll call Villanova Syndrome, in which we'd do really well in the regular season, and then get our asses handed to us early in the playoffs by some upscale school from the north suburbs that actually had things like hardwood floors, nets in their gyms, and general emotional support. None of those seasons are particularly memorable. Even looking over at the rest of these trophies for other sports like baseball and soccer, I can't remember very much about them at all, other than a staggering level of mediocrity I wasn't able to shake off at any point throughout my childhood. I was like an RPG character that you forgot to assign skill points to.

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Basically, I was the guy in the middle.

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The cool thing about being an adult is that you can look up how much stuff like trophies cost now, and I'm pleased to report that there's maybe a grand total of $48 worth of trophies on that shelf. Check out that Trophy Depot link right there. There's a practically infinite variety of combinations, and yet my coaches went with the same trophy three years in a row. They had so many choices, but god forbid they pick an option that wasn't "Boy That Appears To Be Shooting A Basketball At The Sky."

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Why I Hate These Trophies:

I've included my first ever bought-it-myself beer bottle on that shelf for a size comparison. I'm a coach at a gymnastics gym right now, and when the teams place at a big competition, the team gets a big-ass three-foot trophy, which goes on display at the gym. Kids aren't idiots. They know that when they get a seven-inch piece of plastic without any specifics engraved on the front, it shows how much they sucked. If the trophy isn't a minimum of two feet tall, it's just rubbing salt in their already-gaping wounds.

Highwaystarz-Photography/iStock
The only reason they're happy is that there's booze in that cup.

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I'm frankly more proud of my taste in beer at 24 years old than any of these trophies. I really only got involved in sports because it meant shame if I didn't, and when you're a non-adult, shame is an unkillable foe. These stupid trophies only serve as a reminder of what I went through to avoid getting picked on for nine years, and at $2.95 apiece, I really could've done without.

That said, I didn't just curl up in a non-athletic hole come high school. I worked hard and, like most people who grow to hate people, became a distance runner.

3
49th Place At A Cross Country Meet

The Trophy:

Isaac Cabe

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I know what you're thinking: "Distance running? In your small area? Did you just do laps around Farmer Brown's fields, and the winner got the freshest can of Skoal in town?" Well, naysayers, a) I moved, and b) let me introduce you to the Boardman Spartan Invitational, which is the largest meet in the YOUNGSTOWN, OHIO AREA. There were 283 guys in our race that day, the Varsity Division II race. I should be thrilled that I managed to take 49th in that race, but that's so far down the list that I can't possibly be proud of it. They hand out ribbons to 26th-50th place, while awarding medals to 11th-25th place and custom-engraved wood plaques to the top 10. Getting a ribbon when you're that far down the line is basically saying "Congratulations! You didn't collapse and die in the woods, champ."

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The stampeding cows really helped push me to my limit.

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Why I Hate This Trophy:

Boardman was my school's first big test against the previous year's state champs over at Woodridge High. We were so pumped to face off against them and see how we'd fare in a big-time meet. But once we got there, we found out that half of their varsity squad had been suspended for, rumor had it, getting caught while stealing a soccer net and putting it in the middle of a road. (Note: Most small-town pranks equate to "Haha, we took your thing and put it elsewhere!") We creamed their decimated replacement-level team, but we didn't feel good about it. This stupid ribbon has been a fairly effective reminder that I'd have probably done worse place-wise if those darn Woodridge criminals hadn't screwed up and left us with the kids who were just now figuring out that running was like walking, but in fast-forward.

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I should also probably emphasize that this is a high school race in Youngstown, Ohio that has somehow managed to rope in Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and Nike as "official sponsors." It only costs so much to pay the race officials and acquire a stopwatch, so if you're that flush with sponsorship cash, I guess you just start handing out awards left and right. I know I complained about the lack of specificity on participation trophies in the last entry, but there's a fine line. At that point, I'd almost rather have taken 51st place and not "earned" a reminder of my mediocrity. You don't have to get specific about how much I sucked in the third week of the season. Just give me a pat on the back, a water bottle, and tell me where the port-a-potties are.

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You sucked thiiiiis much.

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On that note ...

2
The Northeast Ohio Science And Engineering Fair

The Trophy:

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Oh boy, do I have a treat for you: two pictures!

Isaac Cabe

Isaac Cabe

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Yeah, there's a dumb participation ribbon right there, but I also got a third-place ribbon and a bronze medal. This happened late in my senior year of high school, and I was even able to retroactively put it into a couple of "Awards" sections on a couple of college applications. Despite this, Carnegie Mellon still only waitlisted me for their engineering program, and you know what? "That was probably for the best," he said, still living with his parents and writing for an internet comedy website.

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Why I Hate This Trophy:

Carnegie Mellon probably saw through the bullshit.

I took third place in my category at the Northeast Ohio Science and Engineering Fair, which was Computer Science. Without boring you too much, I'd written a simplified syntax tree which allowed communication between temperature-detection nodes and let a central user interface see if there were any abnormalities or major fluctuations. This would be useful in places like large labs or factories that required temperature consistency ... and you don't really care anymore, so I'll just shut up now.

i3D_VR/iStock
Just know that it looked like this.

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My gripe here is that I took third place out of four kids, one of whom was my computer lab partner. The organizers knew about these projects a couple of months in advance, and there's no reason they couldn't have just punted us Computer Science kids over to the "Engineering" category and saved us the embarrassment of having to receive first, second, third, and honorable mention medals in front of a crowd who could see in their event programs that we were the only four kids in that category. Hell, that audience probably started the trend of dissing millennials for their supposed trophies. "All four won? Out of four participants? This doesn't sit right with me at all! I'm gonna read a lot of blog posts about capitalism and alienate MOST of my friends!"

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Kicking me over to the "Engineering" category also might have saved me from getting grilled by a computer science-y person who clearly didn't want anything to do with this science fair. After I'd given my rehearsed presentation about my project, she looked up from her binder and said, "I'm pretty sure my son has an app on his phone that could teach him how to write this."

milindri/iStock
Damn it, Apple.

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I stuck with engineering for about a year and a half in college, but if I'm being perfectly honest with myself (and I guess with my parents), the moment I decided to switch majors was right then and there at the Northeast Ohio Science and Engineering Fair, and all I have to show for it are two participation ribbons, a participation medal, and freshly cooked plate of hindsight.

1
Fourth Place In A Chess Tournament

The Trophy:

Isaac Cabe

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My grade school was not exactly a bastion of Socratic thought and problem-solving. If I wanted mental stimulation, I could either go to the local public library or light weird things on fire in the woods. One day at school, there was an announcement that the local CYO was going to be starting a chess club, and so me and a friend decided we'd go check it out. Smart people played chess, right?

Well, sort of. A bunch of kids whose parents needed an after-school program to toss them in was who played chess. There were, fortunately, a few levels -- beginners, intermediate, and advanced. After toying around with the beginners and intermediate kids for a few weeks, the guy in charge of the chess program thought he'd move me and my friend up to the advanced level, because the same two kids in advanced chess were getting sick of playing each other over and over again.

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Finally, we found out there was going to be a tournament the week before Christmas break. My friend and I were pretty excited about the chance to win a whole bunch of games ...

Why I Hate This Trophy:

... until we got there and found out that it was going to be broken down by division.

Remember how there were only four kids in the advanced chess division? Yeah.

Isaac Cabe
Fourth place. If you ignore all the self-loathing and misery, it's kind of funny. Kind of.

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I drew my friend in the first round, and he beat me, then the winner of the other two kids. He took first, and I took fourth. On a related note, this piece of crap trophy doesn't even specify that I was in the advanced division. It may as well read "I Played Chess."

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This would have been no big deal had it not gotten mentioned on the morning announcements the next day at school. When confronted, we tried to make it sound cool. Hey, we were the first- and fourth-best chess players in the area! That didn't work, so then we tried to downplay it. You know, how it wasn't a big deal guys, just forget about it, we only played a couple games and then left. Then we smoked some tobacco behind the school and, I don't know, just chilled.

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Well, some kid suddenly decided he could do math and realized that if we only played a couple games, that meant there weren't that many kids playing chess in the first place. Then we were really losers, and not just because we played chess. We may have taken first and fourth place, but those other kids were right -- we hadn't accomplished a damned thing.

solarseven/iStock
I've used this as my metaphor for life ever since.

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At the end of the day, this is what drives me nuts about participation trophies. "Grown-ups" thought they were protecting us from the harsh realities of a winners-and-losers world by giving us "participation trophies," when all they were really doing was saddling us with cheap plastic reminders of what it's like to lose all the goddamned time. My bank account balance is a much better reminder of what a failure I am.

Tell Isaac what a loser he is on Twitter or Instagram. Or say validating things to him. Either works.

Learn how the generation gap makes it impossible for us to all get along in 5 Lies Millennials And Baby Boomers Believe About Each Other and see how teens are unfairly judged in 5 Complaints About Modern Teens (That Are Statistically BS).

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