Don't Be A Dick About Participation Trophies

by Liz Henry
Originally Published: 
Participation Trophies
file404 / Shutterstock

Let me paint a picture: The race is set for early in the morning. Hours of practice have gone into this moment, your endurance has been tested. But you push through. This is a big deal, your first half marathon. The volunteers at the welcome tent hand over a bib and off you go to find a place to stretch and get your playlist synced. You stand, nervous. Can you make it?

And then you’re off. You used to sit on the couch in a heap, head buried in a device. Your run is more of a pitiful fast walk, but this race isn’t about graceful strides and times. It’s about setting a goal and following through. And you’re doing it! In fact, you’re almost finished. Runners are no longer shoulder-to-shoulder, individual pace has thinned out the herd. Who cares, you think, everyone gets a medal and you can’t wait to show it off on Facebook. You’ll snap a selfie wearing it at the finish line — your new profile picture.

With your legs like jelly and chest heaving, you finish and look around. Shouldn’t there be a volunteer stationed here loaded with ribbons and dangling medallions attached? You squint and notice a short woman in a neon T-shirt making her way through clusters of people. She pats a runner’s back, her lips flap, and then she moves on. What in the hell? But here she is, right in front of you.

She rubs your back and says, “Good job.”

Off she goes.

That’s it? A pat on the back? You didn’t pay good money, spend months training in your neighborhood, countless hours on the treadmill at the gym, time away from your kids for a lukewarm “good job.”

Fuck that shit. No way. A lot of people are going to hear about this.

Ahh, the cool sting of not receiving a participation trophy as an adult loser.

But this isn’t what happens when adults lose. Nope, we find all kinds of ways to reward ourselves with participation trophies. But we don’t call them “participation trophies.” We also don’t call ourselves “losers,” either. Adults reserve that kind of talk for concern trolling “kids today.” All those pampered pups, loaded with self-esteem and entitlement who need to suck it up and get real — the world doesn’t give out trophies for losing.


Sure seems to me like the world does. We just call them wine, Facebook, Netflix, shoes, massages, self-care and, oh yeah, sex.

Sex is the trophiest of all participation trophies.

Which is why I bathe in the tears of participation trophy-truthers. If I’m going to be anything in this life, it’s at least consistent. If I lose — which if I’m being honest is all the fucking time — the first place I’m heading is to the participation trophy tent for failures. Hand me a cookie or a certificate, but don’t leave me empty-handed, a self-pat on the back is never enough. If it was, Facebook wouldn’t have a thumbs up as its symbol and 200 million users in the United States alone logging into its service each month.

Don’t get me wrong, I am hyper-competitive, but I just don’t have it in me to be a dick to kids.

A long time ago I volunteered to mentor a group of young girls in elementary school. Not all of them were eager to participate, a few were downright defiant, but all of them tried in their own way to make our world a better place. Girls who did specific tasks earned badges, the ones who did not went without. But during our end of the year awards, every girl walked away with a certificate of participation unique to her personality with a small trinket to match. It was important to say to each girl, “I see you.”

There is nothing more soul-crushing than to walk alone in this world, surviving. It’s also a false narrative. No one, and I do mean no one, gets anywhere alone. Recognizing children for participating instead of being the one, true best doesn’t mean they won’t feel the sting of losing, of failure, of not measuring up to their own expectations and then having the wherewithal to readjust. Of course not.

The amount of hard living it takes in order to find “grit” I wouldn’t wish on any child. In fact, I wish them all magical childhoods filled with rainbows and lollipops, late bedtimes and cereal in neon colors with prizes inside the box. Except the kid who purposely splashed me while I was reading a book at the pool this summer. Fuck that kid.

Children need to be encouraged and supported, yes, pampered to an extent. They have the rest of their lives for the world to beat them down and crush their spirit. It will happen — it’s a mathematical certainty.

Until adults give up their medals for coming in dead last, I’m going to make it rain participation trophies like I’m Oprah — you get a medal, and you get a medal, and you get one. For all the kids who are out there trying instead of winning, I see you. The rest of the adults are just dicks, keep going.

This article was originally published on