Why Winning Isn’t Everything

I’m nine or ten years old, in my bedroom, methodically and ritualistically arranging my trophies and awards precisely three and a half inches equidistant from each other on the shelf. My OCD is temporarily appeased. At this point, I have a lot of trophies and awards – one for every team or contest or club or group. In fact, it’s really far more awards than is necessary or really even deserved when you consider participation acknowledgements.

Like most modern kids, I was overloaded with extracurricular activities and participating in much more than my scope of interest or aptitude. As a perfectionistic, type-A personality, I was a high achiever, so I felt internal pressure to push myself a great deal. I felt the need to be the best at everything and anything. However, I was spread very thin and wound up not really enjoying much of anything or focusing on any one interest or particular goal. I’d burned out completely during college and experienced several (what I’d later learn to be) bipolar episodes during undergraduate and graduate school triggered by extreme stress and anxiety.

Kids have it even worse today. Expectations are higher, schedules are busier, social media exists and is everywhere. And competition is fiercer…or is it? In the interest of inclusiveness, where “everyone’s a winner,” what message is that actually sending? That hard work doesn’t pay off in a marked difference from apathy?  Because it does! Or are we saying it is important that everyone gets a trophy because it is not the sport or activity or fun we are having that’s important, but the trophy at the end that’s important? Which message? They are both poor messages with potentially negative outcomes, in my opinion. According to the Little Book of Talent, “Early success turns out to be a weak predictor of long-term success.”

Here’s an example: our culture is now set up where in organized team sports every kid on a team gets a trophy just for showing up to play (or ride the bench). Receiving the trophy without the effort instills a lack of pride in hard work, love of the sport, and-most importantly-good sportsmanship. Where is the lesson that it’s okay to gracefully lose?

I believe that it would be helpful for the athletic role models focus to be switched up from pro athletes to slightly more sportsmanlike examples, such as the Olympic athletes. Most athletes who compete in the Olympics do not win a medal. In fact, most athletes go into the Olympics knowing that they are only there to participate in the games, and even then, that it is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. They are there for the pride they take in their country, a lifetime of diligent work, and a strong resolve to do their best.

With the “me-first,” trophy-obsessed, sense of entitlement being fostered in our youth, those messages are lost in the shuffle. It’s important to acknowledge that not everyone gets a medal, many are just grateful to be there, and it’s okay if you don’t win.

In general, Olympic athletes are well-mannered in their losses. They stand on the podium next to the victor and show respect while hearing the notes of another country’s national anthem. Losing isn’t fun, but it is healthy. Learning how to deal with defeat and discouragement is important. It’s also important to take the focus off the actual trophy itself to avoid serious extra-curricular burnout and further complications down the road.

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