The Pendulum of 1rd – 2rd – 3rd


Years ago I was working for Ottawa’s Winterlude. A huge winter-based carnival that annually attracts millions ($$$) in tourism. In terms of Winter events – it’s a marathon. By the end of it, the crew is wore out.

As my friend and I were setting up the banquet hall for the awards ceremony for the International Ice Carving competition, I pulled out the trophies “Uh oh Pat, we can’t use these tonight!” “Why?” “Unless there have been some dramatic changes in the English language I’m not aware of, I don’t think our competitors want to bring home a trophy that says 1rd or 2rd.” “No way!” “Yup” “Are you sure?” “I know I’m tired, but…” He walked towards me, looked at the trophies.

We looked at each other and I don’t remember how long it took before we cracked up. We laughed so hard I had to stop and check my pants. We laughed until we hiccuped with full body spasms. May I remind you this was at the end of the marathon. Three weeks with a minimum of 4 hours sleep per night.

Trophies. Who needs them anyways? Obviously everybody does nowadays. When Leo raced, one of his main sponsors owned a trophy shop. He frequently talked about changes in times. When he started his operation, all he made was 1st -2nd – 3rd place trophies. Mementos were reserved for champs and most valuable players. And then his business really boomed when every kid walked home with a participating award.

You don’t fail if you try.

Remember that Nestlé Quik commercial? The child comes home, depressed because his team lost the hockey game. His parent makes him a chocolate drink (mmmm – cho-co-llllate) and tells him “Did you have fun? Did you try?”

Where is that parent when the child comes home from the 37th job interview rejection? Is there a trophy for rejection? Are we really truly preparing people for loss when we award failure? I’m not a parent – I failed at that and now have shelves of “Congratulations on your miscarriage” trophies. But. I still like to believe I can have an opinion.

In 1976 – year Montreal hosted the Olympics – our school held its own mini olympics. After a full week of grueling and intensive competitions, we received our medals, ribbons and pins. I sat in the gym surrounded by kids with handfuls of ribbons. I think I was the only one empty handed. The teacher even openly debated over giving me the participant certificate (a piece of paper) mulling loudly how I hadn’t even earned enough points for that.

I was mortified. But still. I walked away knowing I could kick anybody’s butt in anything creative, I could out-math most of my classmates and I was about the funniest of my class. I couldn’t understand why I was such a spaz when it came to running, catching, throwing or jumping. Or kicking. Or diving. But I knew my strengths.

And now? We award everybody for everything. We don’t learn to deal with true failure. We don’t learn to pinpoint – really pinpoint – our core areas of weaknesses. As long as we try… Sorry your house burned down, but I really tried getting the big red truck around the corner in times. Sorry your husband died, but I really tried figuring out which wire goes where.

Maybe it’s like a pendulum that will eventually find it’s juste milieu. Somewhere between me the loser with zero ribbons, not even a piece of paper claiming I participated and every kid walking home with a trophy. Ah what the heck, keep dishing them out and help support young athletes through sponsorship.


24 thoughts on “The Pendulum of 1rd – 2rd – 3rd”

  1. Well said! We need that dividing line between “winners” and “losers” (this is coming from someone who has a talent for losing, by the way).

    As discouraging as defeat is, it teaches us. We learn where we can improve, what out limitations are, even what we like or dislike. As long as we live by the “it’s enough just to show up” mentality we’re actually limiting our growth or the growth of others.


  2. I have conflicting feelings about this one. I do hate that we award literally everything. But I think it’s situational. When a kid is five or six, there shouldn’t be a damned winner to begin with. I don’t believe in competition, and I especially don’t believe in it at that age. I don’t know a magic age when competition becomes acceptable to me, but there are times when, yeah, it’s OK if every kid gets a trophy for trying. The objective isn’t just to reward the true ‘winners’. It’s to keep kids active and involved in the activity. Or like my kids. My kids will never win anybody’s athletics awards. Ever. Caroline still can’t throw a ball straight enough to hit the broad side of a barn, and Sam is too impulsive to complete any activity he starts. For them? The ‘winning’ is different. And I would argue that telling people there can only be one winner (or two or three) is as false as telling them “we all win at everything”.

    As adults, we are better equipped to manage disappointment, to compartmentalize it better than kids. Not that we’ll ever all be great at it, but you get my drift. Kids deserve to win and to feel like winners, especially little kids. But that doesn’t mean it’s OK to fail to reward the people who achieved the most.


    1. Actually this post is a segue into something I want to post later. But I hear ya. I’m lucky I wasn’t absolutely destroyed mentally by my poor sports skills as a child. I grew up in a neighborhood that pretty much strictly judged people by sports… I feel for your kids. I do think there is a juste milieu somewhere… And like you say – no losers for the 5-6 year olds right?


    1. Yeah! From when I was 15 yrs old until my adulthood (minus 2 yrs in Alberta and 2 yrs for the U in Montreal) but yeah – Ottawa was my home for the longest time! Aylmer is nice…


  3. I agree with your post 1000%. As a culture, we excel at rewarding and celebrating mediocrity. Like you, when I was young, trophies went to the winning teams. Our reward for “participating” al l summer was the fact the we got to play ball with our friends.

    I don’t think one can appreciate winning without losing first. And if we can learn to lose without whining, then everyone wins.


  4. I am not a sporty person never have been and have never won any type of trophy or ribbon now I don’t remember if not winning ever bothered me when I was a child as and adult it doesn’t bother me in any way shape or form, why because I rock…………………and I don’t need a ribbon or trophy to tell me so…………..


  5. One of the unlimited and neverending reasons why I chose to homeschool. It isn’t just the failure of the school system to identify and deal with failure, but the creation by the school system of myriad and sundry bullshit things to label as “success.” and things that parents and their kids should be “proud of.” And parents fall for it. And kids fall for it. And they rush home with their report cards and projects and book reports with beaming smiles for succeeding in an assignment forced upon them based on a curriculum written for the least common denominator. I preferred a real-life approach to the first 18 years of my children’s lives they will never get back, rather than certificates and grades and yearbook pages filled with congratulations for achievements that mean absolutely nothing to anyone anywhere the minute you walk out those metal-detected double doors of high school. By the way, I thought of you yesterday when my kid asked me to buy him Rosetta Stone for French. I asked, “why do you want to learn French? Spanish might be more useful.” And he said, “But French is much prettier. Did you buy that outfit because it was useful or pretty? What about your hairstyle? Or that rug? Didn’t think about THAT didya?!” It was at that point that I had to leave the room before the drool on my chin made it obvious that I had no response whatsoever……


  6. You’ve hit on one of my pet peeves. These days, it is very PC, to make every child feel like a winner. I’ve especially seen this in youth sports. Come on! Who are they trying to fool? The kids that are good know who they are and the kids that are bad also know who they are. EVERYBODY knows. Life isn’t about everyone winning all the time… Geez! That is one of the reasons kids have so many problems when they get older now. They are used to being coddled…
    Oh yeah! Some baseball little leagues don’t even keep score in the lower divisions now. Do they think for a minute that the losing team doesn’t know they lost? Double geez!


    1. I do think some changes are needed. Maybe for the kids who aren’t good at sports do find encouragement in other things… There’s always been such a strong focus on competitive sports – and that’s just not everybody’s thing.


  7. I loathe this mindset. This is the same mentality that sends every entitled student to my desk at the end of the semester telling me he/she WANTS an A because he/she “tried really hard.” No. You earn a grade based on the material you mastered. Learning to fail is valuable, not just to deal with rejection, but to learn what needs improvement, how to do better, etc. I can’t say much about the whole sporting event trophy thing, but it permeates into the classroom. And we’re talking about COLLEGE LEVEL. And like you said, what happens when they go on job interview after job interview? Are they going to say to the interviewer, “But I tried really hard in this interview…”

    Actually… that happened to me once. I actually had an internal candidate want to get involved in my department (I was a managing editor at the time), but he just didn’t have the skills. Or an English degree. Or a writing background. Or experience. (HR sent him because he’d likely be ok with the abysmal payscale.) And when I politely told him he did not get the position, he actually argued with me. And I quote, “But I want this job.” WANT. I finally got to the point where I said, “Then go back to college, earn a degree in writing, get some 2-4 years of experience, and come back and see me.”

    But I was the jerk, right?


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