Going to a birthday party at the house of a member of my under 8s rugby league team, I remember being amazed at the number of trophies the boy had acquired in a few short years of competitive sport.
In fairness, this kid was a heck of an athlete. State runner, swimmer and representative footballer, he was gifted and made many of us look average in comparison.
All the glory was for first, second and third place achievements in a variety of disciplines. Not one of them was for participation or fourth.
In addition, there were no trophies or medals without a name.
Things are very different four decades later. My kids have medals and trophies all over the place. Nameless, vague trophies, obviously pre-ordered and awarded to teams for mere participation in pointless gala days or given by clubs on award nights as thanks for representing them.
It’s great that $200 in registration fees is returned to me in the form of a $5, un-engraved trinket that in years to come no one will be able to identify who the recipient was.
The age of entitlement is here. Kids are lauded and rewarded for participation at every level of their sporting journey – and frankly are worse off for it.
Watching one of my kids play D Grade netball and seeing parents flushed with pride when a semi-final spot is achieved is great. I coached the team and pushing them to achieve their best is what it should be all about.
Yet rewarding those kids with trophies and accolades disproportionate to their success seems silly. Grandparents hear of the achievements, see trophies and start to perpetuate the most horrible phenomena that is crippling our kids in both sport and life itself.
That phenomenon sees kids constantly affirmed, never criticised and told they are in fact better than they actually are.
I see it every day in my role as an educator, as students increasingly expect work to be done for them, while complaints from the corporate sector seem to be regarding graduates with a similar way of thinking.
Athletics and swimming carnivals are evil havens of the phenomena. Elite races are run and the best of the best in a particular age group battle it out, with the top three earning the spoils. As the rest of the races are held and the slower or less skilled competitors compete to gain points for their team, ribbons are handed out at the finishing line of every race.
Watching a very limited child, in terms of skill, run or swim their way to fourth place in a field of five and walk away proudly with a yellow ribbon is something I will never understand.
I am well aware that all kids are at different levels, that some kids will never excel at certain ,endeavours and yes, that people do respond well to encouragement. However, this absurd obsession with making sure every kid is told they are a ‘winner’ helps no one.
My youngest is twice as skilled a netballer as my eldest and plays in a high division. Somehow she has managed to receive fewer awards than her older sister.
She still receives all the tokenistic participation awards, yet due to the tough nature of the competition in which she plays, achieves less major successes such as grand finals, as they are so much harder to reach.
The dynamics of the generation moving through junior sport at this time scares me. By telling kids they are all winners, do we undermine the concept of losing and in turn appreciating the efforts of the opponents in being better? Are we creating another graduating class of Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic types, who seemingly do not see the effort of the opponent or possess the ability to lose with grace or dignity?
Humility is a wonderful human experience. Without it, people live in a proverbial bubble, believing things about themselves and others that will in fact harm them in the long run.
Watching the selfish, brattish behaviour of Andre Agassi as a young man was exciting and the tennis world told him he was every bit as good as what he thought he was. Yet is wasn’t until he got over his threats of not playing at Wimbledon, due to his insistence that he be allowed to wear his brightly coloured gear, that he began to grow up.
The simple act of being told ‘no’ and seeing the greater meaning and significance behind the dress code was instrumental in his 1992 Wimbledon victory, and the improved player and man that he became in subsequent years.
Jack Nicklaus will probably go down in history as one of the best players and people in mainstream sport. His humility is legendary. Listening to him speak about that humility in a documentary was inspiring, and his insistence that all he does is hit a ball around a field and “just happen to do it in less strokes than anyone else”, is a remarkable perspective.
Fanning egos, as we do with our children, might breed more success and confidence in the short term, yet over the course, the most effective way to help people is to encourage humility.
I’d prefer to hear balanced comments around the fields and courts on a Saturday morning.
“The best kid won today and if you want to beat them, you will need to work a little harder.”
“Well played boys, but let’s remember this isn’t the NRL.”
“Let’s shake hands girls, they were way too good for us today.”
Sure, there a lot of great coaches out there who manage the balance between enjoyment, participation and success extremely well. In fact, coaches and managers are probably less to blame than over-expectant parents who, at times, live vicariously through their beautiful children.
Without going to the extreme of telling our kids that they are rubbish, untalented and limited in their abilities, perhaps there is a need for a more measured, honest and reasonable evaluation of their skills.
Life will teach them that very few people actually win prizes, yet those who do generally deserve it.