You’ve probably heard people talk disgustedly about the “Everyone Gets a Trophy” mentality that is pervasive in recreational sports.
“Doesn’t this teach kids that they don’t have to try that hard?” we say. “This is why young people these days don’t know how to work hard! Won’t they feel entitled to success despite having put in less effort than their peers?” Uh… I don’t know. I’m not really trying to take a stab at answering those major psychological questions. But they’re good questions worth asking.
I, who barely qualify as a Millenial on the cusp of having been a Gen-X-er, don’t see myself as “one of those kids.” But in reality, I was the original one of those kids. During my first round of swim lessons, the lifeguard coerced me into trying the diving board with the promise of a big fancy swim-meet race ribbon that she pulled from some stash somewhere, and it did the trick. I jumped off a small diving board and received, in exchange, a first place ribbon. “I am a winner!” My first softball team was quite literally the worst team in the league – a pack of uncoordinated, unfocused, disinterested 8 and 9 year old girls who lost pretty much every game. And we ended the season with a big shiny trophy for each kid. “We’re winners!” (We were not, in fact, winners, if you use the conventional definition of the word.) So did I fall for it? Did this cause me to lose my potential edge and feel that my every pitiful mediocre accomplishment deserved praise, recognition and accolades?
Fast-forward to present day. I have completed many races that reward each finisher a race medal at the end. Everyone gets one. All you have to do is cross the line. (Hell, sometimes you don’t even have to do that, as evidenced by this character who decided to take an extra medal after finishing the Boston Marathon – for his wife, because she “deserved it” for supporting him in his training. Sigh.) It would be easy to see this as a symptom of the same problem. But I thought about it. And each finisher’s medal has meant something different to me. So it stands to reason that each one might mean something unique to each person or at different times in our lives.
For example, my first marathon was a pretty meaningful experience for me. I had been recovering (for a long time) from a knee surgery, had never covered such a long distance, and I idolized any person who had completed such a fantastic feat. When I received a finisher’s medal at the end of that race, it symbolized validation and it added to the feelings of self-confidence that I was developing as a young adult. I was genuinely unsure whether I could achieve that goal, and I did. In contrast, I have since run many half marathons. I always know that I’ll finish, and whether I push the limits of my own capabilities or not, I will still take home a medal. If my marathon finisher’s medal felt like a badge of self-worth, each half marathon medal felt, comparatively, like a solid high five.
There have been other rewards over the years. Every once in a while, I’m clever enough to enter a very VERY small race where I can win an age-group award. (This is the key to success, my friends. Swim in a small pond.) When I walk away with a second place medal, a coffee mug, or a plaque, I do beam on the inside a little bit. I know it doesn’t make me world-class, but it makes me feel good to think that, at least on this day, I’ve ranked well amongst my peers. I understand the difference between these awards and those that simply signify completion of a race, and I value them accordingly.
I chose a picture of my dog wearing my race medal for this post because my recent race experience is what got me thinking about this topic. (He did not run the race. *I did not take an extra medal for him.*) I ran a race that was really quite good for me. I ran my best time EVER for a half marathon, and I had a blast while I was doing it. It was a really meaningful experience for me, but might completely lack meaning for anyone else. When I cross the finish line in the middle of the pack while welling up with emotion over my own accomplishment, I realize that it would be preposterous if anyone else were this excited on my behalf. So is it fair for me to be so excited? Is it ridiculous for me to be so emotional over a 1:50 half marathon? Am I over-dramatizing the situation? Giving myself too much credit for the “many miles” I ran in preparation, and “all the hard work” I did to get there. Afterall, I’m sure the person who won the race put in more miles and did more hard work. No way! I value that achievement! But here’s the part that relates to the topic at hand. My race medal will be my souvenir. The time I write down in my little running log – THAT will be my symbol of accomplishment.
In other words, I don’t use my race medals as signs of my accomplishments. I know that I could get one no matter when I crossed the finish line. My race times are my signs of what I’ve accomplished. Even still, why do I like getting medals so much? Well… they’re pretty. My medals, much like the race t-shirts, are my souvenirs to remind me of cool places I’ve visited, friends I’ve run with, and miles I’ve covered. And I would bet that most people would tell you the same. Maybe each one doesn’t mean much, but to see your collection grow might mean something.
I assume that the race medals mean something different to each person. Maybe someone who never thought they’d have the courage to make a major lifestyle change finally got off the couch, and they did it. They finish their first 5k. And maybe there’s someone recovering from a bad injury, and they never expected to cover 10 kilometers again, but they do.
Perhaps the point is that we shouldn’t assign meaning to something like a race medal on someone else’s behalf. Let them decide what it means to them. Who am I to decide whether a race medal is a valid way to commemorate the covering of some arbitrary distance? Or to decide what constitutes a meaningful achievement. Our accomplishments may be “mediocre” compared to someone else’s, but we’re not asking rest of the world to celebrate our relative ordinariness. We can celebrate for ourselves. Afterall, everyone is ordinary at something, and every accomplishment is extraordinary to someone. And what fun would life be if we never celebrated that?