Trophy Lives

Kristin Devine

Kristin has humbly retired as Ordinary Times' friendly neighborhood political whipping girl to focus on culture and gender issues. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of

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53 Responses

  1. Oscar Gordon says:

    Luckily the world has people like Mike Rowe, or Keanu Reeves, who make it a point to recognize the efforts and contributions of regular people. Mike Rowe by using his fame to elevate their stories, and Keanu by (from what I hear) keeping himself humble and generous.Report

  2. atomickristin says:

    Agreed – I love what Mike Rowe is doing and I hope Keanu is legit.Report

    • George Turner in reply to atomickristin says:

      It was recently noticed that Keanu never touches his female costars at things like red carpet events, as a sign of quiet respect. He simply stands beside them for photo after photo, and this has greatly pleased women who’ve noticed.Report

      • dragonfrog in reply to George Turner says:

        The same apparently when fans ask to take posed photos with him – he kind of puts his arms as though chummily putting a hand around their waist or shoulder, but leaves an air gap such that he doesn’t actually touch them.Report

        • George Turner in reply to dragonfrog says:

          Well that actually indicates something quite different.

          Seven-year old Keanu: “But grandpa, why shouldn’t I touch girls?”
          Grandpa: “Because they all have cooties, Keanu!”Report

          • atomickristin in reply to George Turner says:

            I didn’t want to go there but I couldn’t help but think “if Keanu wasn’t such a beloved guy, people would view that as a pathology!”Report

          • dragonfrog in reply to George Turner says:

            Apparently this is a regular thing in Korea – called “manner hands” or “courtesy hands” or the like. Not that Keanu Reeves has any particular connection to Korean culture that I’m aware of.Report

  3. LeeEsq says:

    I’ve been thinking of Eddie the Eagle recently. He is generally seen as one of those beautiful losers that common people love but when you think about, he was a.lot more athletic than most people. He might have come in last but he did better than anybody on this blog or most elsewhere could do.

    In nearly every endeavor, there is a person who is good enough to better than nearly everybody else but not good enough to be close to the big leagues. That must be an enormously frustrating position to be in. You aren’t respecting by the people who share your passion because you are obviously worse than they are. At best they might patronize you. At worse, they loathe you for not quitting and letting the real pros do what they have to do. Yet, you are a lot better than the other amateurs so you can’t really hang out with them because they resent you.Report

    • atomickristin in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Plus, amateurs have a unique perspective that pros sometimes lack. Professionals have a lot invested in the status quo and amateurs as outsiders can at times be excellent external critics and even have some insight into discoveries that people in the system can’t “see” because they’re too close to it.

      It’s an unfortunate part of the human condition it seems.Report

    • dragonfrog in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I think this is something the UK football league system addresses better than the North American franchise system. If someone is a pretty darn good but far from British Premier League calibre player – there’s a league for them to play in, whether it’s the third or the twelfth tier. If there are two teams in the same town that promote / relegate to compete in the same league – well those are two of the teams in that league. Nobody paid millions to have the only BPL team in the a geographic region, so there can be two BPL teams in Manchester and three in London, if that’s how many players that good live in those cities.Report

    • George Turner in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I don’t know if anyone here has noticed yet, but there’s immense outrage being aimed at the US women’s soccer team over their record-breaking 13-0 defeat of Thailand. The entire US team celebrated every goal like they’d just won the World Cup 1-0, while the Thai players were left in tears. They did that 13 times.Report

    • greginak in reply to LeeEsq says:

      For many sports this isn’t true at all. I can speak mostly to road and trail running and xc skiing, but many high level amateurs compete is some competitions with pros and are respected. In some cases amatures are competitive with pros. It’s very possible to not be a pro but be well respected and treated as a peer.

      This would also go for road and mb cycling and various other endurance events like triathlons.Report

      • Aaron David in reply to greginak says:

        I think that is an aspect of the different types of competitive sports. When it is an open event, much like a triathlon or centurion where you pay your fee and take your starting point, it is much more egalitarian. When its invite only, such as team sports in a league or something that has an invitation mechanism to enter like the Tour de France, you are going to see a bit more of what Lee is talking about.

        I know when I played pool, you had to be part of a sponsored team, and couldn’t just show up for a match. This was still just bar league, but BCA rules were in effect.Report

      • atomickristin in reply to greginak says:

        I just think there’s a strong trend in this direction. Is it 100% no, but it’s just something that I feel I’ve experienced firsthand and seen others in the same boat.

        thanks for reading and commenting.Report

  4. Doctor Jay says:

    I was thinking about this very thing this week. By virtue of going to a tiny high school (there were 63 in my graduating class), I could participate in just about everything I wanted to. If I wanted to be on the football team, I was. (I was well suited to football in 8th grade, but then everyone else grew, and I didn’t).

    Nevertheless, participating in those activities was valuable to me. Schools sponsor this kind of thing, in theory, because it’s a valuable experience for the students. In CA, where I now live, there is a mentality that sort of excludes the kind of dilettante that I was. I know a young woman, 12 years old, that has just got on the competition soccer track. So she’s in different leagues, plays for a school team in the fall and a club team in the spring, and maybe goes to camp in the summer, and possibly does some sort of winter training. At 12 years old. This is what it takes to remain competitive. And, it of course excludes the possibility of participating. Which kind of makes me sad.

    It isn’t a coincidence that I teach a martial arts class for kids, and we take any kid who walks through the door.Report

    • atomickristin in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      Yeah. My parents, and later my husband, never understood my lack of school achievement because they all went to small schools and were at those schools from K/1 through 12. They had no clue about what it’s like to go to a school with 1500 students at it, most of whom were strangers to each other and to the teachers/coaches. It’s just a very different sort of experience and is kind of dehumanizing. I’m sure it’s great for the next pro ball player (I suppose) but it wasn’t great for any kid who didn’t have a niche at the age of 10.Report

    • It can be hard here in Los Angeles to find NON-competitive venues. My kids want to learn to dance. Great, but trying to find a studio that doesn’t expect you to compete? Nigh impossible. Sports? Finding a league or team where they’re over 8 and they don’t expect you to already be an expert? Good luck.

      Hey, why are kids such couch potatoes?Report

      • dragonfrog in reply to blake (bitmaelstrom) says:

        And then finally when they’re in their twenties, they can sign up for city recreational / beer leagues. By which time they’ve been out of the habit for at least 12 years.Report

      • atomickristin in reply to blake (bitmaelstrom) says:

        Totally. I had my boys in fencing for a few months (and it looked so fun I even started taking it for a while) and they just would not quit with the pressure to compete. I took tae kwon do in high school and I did not want to compete, and the sensei eventually told me “if you don’t compete you can’t progress any further” so I quit even though I loved it. :/Report

        • Fencing club economics are tough. The real money is in private lessons and tournaments with more than the minimal number of participants. Without those it’s hard to stay in business.

          I’m a member in a club that meets in a rec center. Our coaches are qualified old guys who do it for nothing. We teach four 8-week beginner classes per year for the rec center at no cost. In exchange, the rec center lets us use space for open fencing for 90 minutes on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings. If they have a paying use for the space, we get bumped. We’re the only one of 11 clubs along the Front Range that doesn’t push competition.

          We do encourage people to fence in a tournament from time to time so they can fence against some new people.Report

          • atomickristin in reply to Michael Cain says:

            Fencing is, of course, something you do against another person so it makes some sense to go to competitions eventually, but boy howdy they were SO in our faces about it, and we didn’t have the time/money to do more than just pay for the lessons 2x a week. Just got old.Report

            • We get self-described “refugees” from some of the competitive clubs. We also, on rare occasions, kick out people who are overly competitive for our goals. IIRC, though, you live in a place where you likely don’t have a choice of clubs.Report

        • blake in reply to atomickristin says:

          I get that, though I had fun competing, and I guess it helps in some ways, though I’d never say you couldn’t progress without it.

          What people don’t recognize, I think, is that competing does improve your skill…in competing. It may or may not improve you in other ways.Report

        • dragonfrog in reply to atomickristin says:

          I also took tae kwon do in my teens – it was a friendly group that ran lessons in the community centre, very much not a super competitive club trying to keep a reputation of turning out champions.

          We were encouraged to go to competitions, not to bring glory to the club or anything, but just as an opportunity for personal development since competing is a different experience from regular lessons. Certainly I learnt much more per minute sparring with people I didn’t know, hadn’t sparred with before, and who’d been taught by different instructors, than I did in class. Using the couple of minutes of someone else’s match as your only opportunity to get some hints what to expect from them when it’s your turn to face them – you don’t get that opportunity outside of tournaments, for example.

          I don’t know whether at some point there was a requirement to go to at least a few competitions in order to achieve some belt level. I suppose there might have been.Report

  5. greginak says:

    1 Barney was perfect for it’s target population: little kids. It’s sin was not having an adult level for parents stuck watching it to enjoy. ( why yes my son did like barney when he was 3, why do you ask)

    2 A couple hundred years ago there were very much a class of better people. That betterness was bestowed by circumstance of birth as a lord or king or some such royalty/ class system. One of the things America gave to the world was a place that mostly ( and imperfectly) eschewed royalty and class bounderies. People can rise by their merit. Of course this being America we have taken something good and some have dragged it to crazyness by ignornign how much luck of birth will always matter. Because the genetic lottery always matters.

    3 There are plenty of people who still bust their humps without any thought of winning. Every weekend there are tens of thousands of people running, biking or skiing various races. They will never win and are just fine with that. They are doing their passion and will get a “participation trophy”/ medal at the end. Part of the races is the community and sharing the experience. ( why yes i have a trail marathon this weekend, why do you ask?) And the last person will get the same finisher medal as the first person. Good for them, they finished.Report

  6. Damon says:

    We talk about this concept a lot in jujitsu. When you roll or compete, there’s someone else, but you’re really competing with yourself. Yes, someone will win the tournament, but you got incrementally better…every experience makes you better. If you can stick it out to get a blue belt, you’re going to get a black if you keep coming and working consistently. How much better are you now as a blue than you were two years ago? How much better will you be in 4 years? Maybe not the same level of progression or as quick, but you WILL be better.

    You’ll get there. Others get there faster or slower, but you really only have to measure yourself against yourself. Nothing else mattersReport

    • atomickristin in reply to Damon says:

      Earlier this year I got a piano, and I haven’t played in years. I practiced at first and kind of got discouraged thinking “well I’ll never be as good as I was back then” and haven’t practiced for a while. But today I was thinking if only I’d practiced I’d have at the least mastered a few songs, and now I’ve mastered none. :/Report

      • I once, during “first class of the semester meet and greet” described myself as “learning to play the piano but not being very good at it” and you know, that felt freeing.

        I am so competitive with myself. A lot of times if I can’t do something “well enough” to satisfy myself I give up on it. I didn’t give up on piano because I invested in lessons (and my parents invested in having my granddad’s piano refurbished for me).

        I enjoy playing and I do try to practice an hour a day but I’m still trying to make my peace with “not being very good, ever” – I came to it too late, I probably lack the musical gene, and I can’t practice as long per day as it might take to get really good.Report

  7. pillsy says:

    I really liked this piece a lot.

    I was chatting with some guys my age at the bar, and they were launching into exactly this set of complaints about kids today (and kids yesterday, i.e., Millennials) getting those participation trophies. And I was like, “Come on dude I got a trophy for playing soccer when I was six even though I was an unbelievably shitty soccer player even by six year old standards.”

    Like, I’m not saying that they got them too, but I’m pretty sure they got them too.

    The part that stood out for me, though, even more was the contrast with the winner-take-all culture of celebrity and superstardom. That’s a really interesting connection, and one that had never occurred to me before.Report

    • atomickristin in reply to pillsy says:

      Even if they didn’t, they got SOMETHING – a pat on the head, kudos, a gold star, a letter grade, whatever.

      It’s just not an argument that adds up to me any more now that I’ve pondered it.

      Thanks for reading!Report

      • pillsy in reply to atomickristin says:

        I’d never thought about it this way before, but even just showing up for soccer to wander around aimlessly on the field for a few minutes before the coach inevitably (and wisely) benched me was something of a challenge for me.

        And though sports never really mattered to me, sometimes grades did. And the grade I’m the most proud of is the C I got in Classical Mechanics freshman year of college.

        I worked my ass off for that C.Report

        • atomickristin in reply to pillsy says:

          Yep one of the more interesting discoveries of my adult life was how much more I valued the things I’d worked at learning or achieving ~by choice~ even when I got no recognition for them. Seems a little counter to forcing kids to work at things for meaningless trinkets.

          But when you value the trinkets, then it’s different.Report

          • I think one of my issues is that I came to value the “trinkets” (even if they were just pats on the head from the teacher) because I knew I couldn’t make headway in the popularity realm, so I focused on achievement and pleasing the teachers instead of trying harder to have peer-group friends.

            No one ever told me “When you’re an adult, no one will really give that much of a crap any more because everyone is doing the stuff that you do.” Not sure I’d have done anything differently if I had known.Report

  8. CJColucci says:

    I’ve always said there’s nothing wrong with participation trophies as long as there is a bigger trophy for winning.Report

  9. My kids got and eschewed participation trophies. But I feel like the whole “participation trophies” is a metaphor. The problem, I think, isn’t that people are rewarded for minor victories, but that they’re rewarded for nothing. Which is a sort of handout. And a handout is sort of saying “You can’t make it on your own.”Report

    • dragonfrog in reply to blake (bitmaelstrom) says:

      Except as noted elsewhere in this thread – they’re not awarded for nothing. It’s basically the certificate of completion, the commemorative coffee mug. Everyone who gets one came out to join their neighbourhood team, came out for all the practices, came out for the tournament, maybe traveled and stayed with a billet or billeted someone else. They’re to recognize all of that, which is not trivial.

      If you go to an inter-club event that isn’t even for a competitive sport at all – a model train convention or quilting conference – you get that kind of thing. It just gets called a souvenir, not a participation trophy.

      Depending on the format of the event, there might or might not be additional awards for winning teams or competitors.Report

      • fillyjonk in reply to dragonfrog says:

        The conferences I go to sometimes refer to it as SWAG – the acronym for Stuff We All Get. Coffee mugs or free pencils or sometimes t-shirts. I admit I like swag.

        (These were scientific conferences, but I’ve also seen swag at knitting/quilting events)Report

    • Swami in reply to blake (bitmaelstrom) says:

      Funny thing is that 25 years later is my kids “misremembered” the entire phase of sports life and now swear they were actually talented — pointing at the trophies as proof.

      Not sure what my point is. I just find it funny.Report

      • atomickristin in reply to Swami says:

        Interesting! I feel embarrassed when I see mine, like I was so pitiful I had a ribbon tossed at my faceReport

        • blake in reply to atomickristin says:

          I have trophies from competing in martial arts, but my sensei said, “They just collect dust” and most memorably he berated me mercilessly for a tournament where i took second because I had not AT ALL done my best.

          You could lose honorably, by doing your best and just not quite being good enough, or because someone else was having a great day, or because the judges robbed you.

          You could win dishonorably, by making many mistakes that the judges didn’t notice, or through poor sportsmanship, or just because you had no real competition (which isn’t dishonorable, really, but it’s nothing to celebrate, either.)

          “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
          And treat those two impostors just the same”Report

      • blake in reply to Swami says:

        There was a thing back in the ’90s where you “remembered” your childhood incorrectly to relieve yourself of the grief and disappointments you actually experienced. I had a friend who did that in his 20s, and in his 30s he was started to re-discover the truth. (“Hey, I did terrible in school!”) A very odd thing.Report

    • atomickristin in reply to blake (bitmaelstrom) says:

      I DO think there’s something to idea that lauding kids with some types of empty praise has a detrimental effect on them. (that’s even been somewhat proven scientifically I believe)

      Like, getting told repeatedly “you’re smart” or “you’re good at sports” or whatever actually inadvertently undermines kids’ confidence and makes them feel like they HAVE to always be smart, and they stop taking chances on things they don’t know how to do. And you’re totally correct that knowing that people are always going to tell you you’re good at X, Y, Z cheapens the reward, making it not worth having, and feels like people are giving you pity praise. Totally.

      And thanks for reading! 🙂Report

  10. Swami says:

    “You will never win a gold medal, you won’t even win your bracket at the Y, so why even bother? Why waste your effort? Why not stay home and play video games, at least you can win doing that. This insane focus on winning at all costs and being the best of the best of the best in a buzzing hive of 8 billion people is turning we Americans – who value achievement so highly it’s practically a pathology – into a nation of people who either go big or go home, literally.”

    This is a great post in so many ways. I would like to add a “yes, and” though…

    The value of properly working institutions and values is when constructive forms of competition generate positive externalities. IOW, the basically zero sum competition of sports, scientific research or entrepreneurial creativity leads to positive value for the rest of society (in terms of entertainment, technological improvements, consumer satisfaction or just good old fashioned Greek “arete”).

    I think the participation trophy, the getting a B just for completing the assignment, and the mantra of trying to get kids to feel good about themselves regardless of what they actually do are all signs of a pathology that undermines focusing on excellence aimed at adding value to ourselves and others.Report

    • atomickristin in reply to Swami says:

      You’re totally right – there is real human advantage en masse to competitive systems but when the rewards are being given disproportionately to a very small group, for things that are completely unearned, I really think it’s demoralizing for everyone who isn’t in that small group. Thanks for reading and commenting.Report

      • Swami in reply to atomickristin says:

        Yeah, agreed. The key is “properly working institutions and values”. Honestly, I think the institutions are still working better in the US than most places around the world, and current inequality trends are partially reflecting this.

        Emphasis on relatively better, not better than prior eras or compared to what is possible.Report

  11. An aside about kids understanding what’s going on:

    The first year mine played Little League was in what’s called the Junior Minors. Strikes and outs weren’t counted, so every kid got to bat until he hit the ball every inning, and no score was kept, because the goal was to teach skills, not to create winners and losers. But the kids knew exactly who was winning and what the score was, and some even kept track of their RBIs. (Though trying to explain that having a bigger team was an advantage was like something out of Spinal Tap.

    “We beat them, Dad!”

    “That’s because we had 10 players and they only had 8.”


    “So we get 10 runs almost every inning and they could only get 8.”

    “Yeah, but we beat them!”)Report

  12. atomickristin says:

    As a child I remember being both enraged by losing at games and infuriated when my mom tried to let me win. But I totally understood the concept of winning!Report

    • Fish in reply to atomickristin says:

      “As a child…” I’m terribly competitive and I HATE losing, which can make enjoying competitive things difficult at best. For the most part, I’ve overcome this by learning how to “turn off”–or at least “turn down”–my competitiveness by focusing on things like game mechanics, short-term accomplishments, admiring the cleverness of others who are able to do things like “plan” and “strategize” and “properly kick a soccer ball,” and just enjoying the moment.

      Great post, Kristin.Report

  13. blake says:

    I was somewhat precocious as a child so I could beat adults at a lot of games, but if I got the sense they let me win, I would get in their faces: “DID YOU LET ME WIN?”


    I never threw a game to my kids, though I didn’t play for blood when it wasn’t necessary. Then generally they get to that point where they can kick YOUR ass no matter how hard you’re playing. But they know they’ve earned it.Report

  14. Kazzy says:

    My 5-year-old got a 2nd place medal for “competing” in a two team basketball clinic. Even he was all, “WTF?”

    Really, the response is going to vary by the kid. For some kids, participating IS an accomplishment and affirming as much can be really important for them in a way that bears fruit down the line. Others are going to look at trophies for trying and smirk that they aren’t the same as trophies for winners.

    The girlfriend and I go back and forth a lot on this. Part of it is our own different parent/teaching/life philosophies and part of it is having very different children. For her daughter (age 12), just trying something new requires a lot from her so celebrating her consistently showing up is important. For my older son (now age 6), he understands there are winners and losers and good shots/hits/throws and bad shots/hits/throws and that he generally wants to win and play well.

    At times, I need to curb his competitiveness (right now, the mantra is “Good sport first, good teammate second, good player third”) and at times I need to embrace it.

    There is a notion that kids rise to the level of expectations. I think this is true, provided the level is reachable (there is a related term known as the “Zone of Proximal Development”… worth looking up). I think alongside this, kids can sink to the level of expectations if they are low. So, we need to calibrate our expectations and our response to kids meeting those expectations based A) on the specific kid and B) what our ultimate goal for them is. The one-size-fits-none approach is no more effective with trophies than anything else.Report

  15. fillyjonk says:

    This article resonated with me. I was a “high-achieving kid” in school (I took tests well, did all my work, went over and above on stuff that particularly interested me, AND I was compliant in class) and people told me I would Do Great Things and….I wound up as a professor at a small regional college and I wonder sometimes what I did wrong, or if I wasn’t ambitious enough, or if the lead paint I was exposed to as a kid finally caught up with me, or what. Because I’m not working in a lab trying to cure cancer or running around Borneo finding new species of plants.

    So yeah, even someone with an objectively Good Life (one of my professors, when I returned to that campus, commented I was one of the few he had worked with who actually found a career in my chosen field) like me can feel like somehow they’re a chump or a loser because they’re not doing Big Famous Things.

    And that’s stupid and annoying.

    I got a *few* participation trophies as a kid – I remember the one I got one year for being in Spelling Bee (the next year, only people who finished above a certain level got one – maybe someone complained? The second trophy I got was nicer than the first…). But one thing I’ve learned as an adult is that you can’t count on ANY recognition for ANYTHING you do. It’s hard to stay internally motivated, but it’s all some of us get.

    (One year, I took part in a particularly arduous and not-very-well-run-by-outsiders program that was supposed to be for “recruitment” of students. I wound up giving up about two weeks of my “free time” (time not in class or working on research) preparing for it. At the end, what I got was a piece of paper that I was expected to fill my own name in on (!) “recognizing” my “participation. Oh, and I had to break up two kids who started fighting with each other which was stressful. It didn’t feel good and the “fill in your own name here” thing seemed SO emblematic of the thankless tasks that most adults are expected to do… I don’t know what I wanted, exactly. Maybe for someone to actually, personally, say “thank you for giving up two weeks worth of evenings and weekends to do something that didn’t really excite you, but needed to be done” but the secret of adulthood is…you don’t get that.

    Anyway. I don’t even really know what I want but maybe once in a while someone noticing and saying something personal and positive when I do something particularly well. Or maybe less tasks being devolved off administration and on to faculty, on top of our regular workloads. Or yeah, maybe a little bonus now and then.

    Also, about your argument: “I once got into a heated argument with my father who fully believes in personal greatness as a means to an end and all others need not apply, about whether or not the manager of a Pizza Hut – THE MANAGER! – was a scumbag loser”

    I don’t know the whole context of the argument (whether it was “but he’s a manager, how can he be a loser” or “he only manages a crappy Pizza Hut, therefore he’s a loser”) but I admit my determination of whether the guy was a scumbag loser or not was not what job title he had, but how he treated his underlings and co-workers and family and friends…whether he was kind and willing to help out, or if he pulled the “manager card” on his underlings and 100% made them always do the awful work and take the awful shifts when he was off at home…while the one or two Terrible Bosses I had weren’t exactly people I’d call “scumbag losers” (I reserve that for someone who abuses their romantic partner, or serially cheats on them, or skips out on things like child support), they were miserable people to work for and one thing I learned was Don’t Be Like That Guy (or That Woman) If You Ever Get A Position of Authority.Report