I’ve always thought that participation awards are silly. Me thinking that has also led to many mishaps in my mindset. It has led to valuing a trophy, metaphorical or physical, over all else. Lately, I’ve been pondering if me- and everyone else, just deserves a participation award. Sometimes, I think, that’s the only ‘trophy’ you’ll ever get, and I think that’s okay.
I’ve been accused of being cynical. I would argue it’s more so that I’m realistic. And the reality is, not everyone is going to be the best. You can’t always be the best. Try as you might, you cannot be the absolute best at everything you do. That’s something that hadn’t ever sat well with me. I push myself to the point of burning out, I try so hard at everything I do, because I want to be the best. I’ve always been prideful, and it has cost me.
But, being the ‘best’ suggests some sort of competition. The most significant factor of any award is who you’re competing against, and how you let that affect you. Participation awards, in part, are meant to eliminate the idea of ‘competition’ against others to focus instead on having fun. I want to show you, how, first and foremost- competition is decided by your mindset, and how that mindset can reach you from anywhere.
When I was younger, I used to play soccer for i9 sports- which is a league that encourages cooperation, teamwork, and kindness. In short, they value the fun of the game over its outcome. They gave out participation trophies at the end of each season to every player, and a medal to one player at the end of each game. The medal was meant to honor the ‘character trait’ of the week. Even then, I thought the idea of participation awards such as the ones they awarded me to be silly, but I continued playing for them nonetheless.
Now, in one game I played, I had a particular investment in the outcome. I mean, sure, I liked winning, but in i9 sports? The whole point is that I didn’t have to care. I just had fun with the game. But in this specific game, we went against a team that had always beat us. Worse still, the thing that bothered me so much about them was their star player. He was the one who scored the goals and stole the ball with ease. My problem wasn’t even that he was good. My problem was the ego that it gave him.
Every game I played against him, he would look at me with a challenge dancing in his eyes. Something that still hasn’t changed about me- I don’t back down from a challenge. Ever. Especially not from someone who thought he was so-o much better than everyone else. He would steal the ball and laugh, like it was funny how easy it was. He would be right next to me on the field and make me trip up because of how consumed I was with wanting to beat him. He would look at me if I missed a goal with unspoken words inscribed across his smug smirk. To me, it felt like he was jeering, “You can’t do it. You can’t do it.” And I wanted to do it. I wanted to do it just to prove to him I could.
During this game, I was consumed with determination to beat him. Not to have fun, or to play to win, even- I was playing to prove him wrong. I pushed myself harder than I ever had. I ran faster and kicked harder. At the time, I couldn’t even discern if I was proving something to myself, or to this player I didn’t even know.
Because I was trying so hard, I didn’t concern myself with drinking any water or eating any food, and I hadn’t really eaten anything substantial all morning. It was really hot outside. I mean, it’s always hot in Florida, but even more so than usual. I was as red as a tomato, and sweat was dripping down my face. As I was running, my stomach began to hurt. I ignored it and ran faster. I began to feel increasingly lightheaded as my head began to pound. Because of it, I was moving slower. I wasn’t as aware of my surroundings, but I told myself I needed to keep going. I was missing the ball, making silly mistakes, and that just made me angrier. I needed to prove I could do it.
“Hey Nia, are you okay?” my coach called. “Do you need to step off the field?” The referee asked, eyeing me with concern. ‘I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine,’ it replayed an endless loop in my mind. I waved them off, unsteady on my feet. My skin was hot, it felt burning to the touch. Sitting out would mean giving up, and giving up was even more shameful than losing. It was practically announcing I had lost, and I wanted to win. Even the stupid player that annoyed me so much, unaware of the competition I had waged against him, appeared concerned.
I was sluggish on the field, literally stumbling around in circles while everyone else was fighting over the ball, actually playing the game. My vision was becoming fuzzy, then it turned black altogether. My eyes were open, and I literally couldn’t see. It was like my brain was trying to work through sludge, my legs were about to give out, it felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. There was a loud ringing in my ears, and I was afraid. I didn’t know what was happening, I thought I was going to pass out. The referee finally led me off the field and onto the sidelines, despite my protests, my coach made me sit the rest of the game out.
While my body thanked me, the rest of me was embarrassed. Everyone else was playing just fine, and I had almost passed out! As far as I was concerned, that was pathetic. All the players were looking on at me on the sidelines with pity, like they were worried for me. I didn’t want them to be worried, even less so did I want their pity. I became increasingly frustrated that I couldn’t do something that they could all do with remarkable ease. No one else had almost passed out in the middle of the field, and I had. In my eyes, that made me weak. Incapable. I wanted to prove I could, and all I had shown is that I couldn’t.
Okay, so what did I want to show you with that story? A lot, actually, but let me start with this- competition can be bad. Can be, because with the right mindset, it can be great! Competition has the ability to push you to your limits, to allow you to reach horizons that you hadn’t thought possible. Without competition, your growth will remain stagnant. Without challenging yourself, you won’t improve. Healthy competition with yourself and with others is vital to your growth as a person.
However, as you can tell, I haven’t ever exactly had the best relationship with competition. The problem hasn’t even ever been that I’m competing against others, but that I’m competing against myself in the worst way possible. I have always been very set on perfection. I’m a perfectionist, and I hate making mistakes, and admitting to myself that I’ve made them, more than anything else. So when I mess up, I can’t ever seem to get past it.
I refuse to accept a participation award from anyone else by dismissing it as silly, and refuse to give one to myself on the basis that I only win when I achieve the impossible standards I’ve set for myself.
Just as I’ve been accused of being cynical, I have been told I’m idealistic. It’s ironic, because they contradict themselves, but I’m both. And the dreamy-eyed part of me wishes people would take themselves a little less seriously. I wish that we could all be a little more transparent with our failures instead of only flaunting our successes. Our perceived failures not only forge character, but they make our success possible. I wish that others would be more vulnerable about when they mess up, so I can be more willing to admit it too. I wish we would stop putting so much weight on each and every thing we do and learn to laugh about it. Stop being so obsessed with perfection that we can allow ourselves to be messy.
By ‘people’ and ‘we’ I really mean myself. I mean a lot of other people too, I know, but I’m talking about myself- not attacking you, dear reader, I promise. I want to stop taking myself so seriously, being consumed by a need for perfection, having an aversion to mistakes. If I want to see that around me, I think I need to see it in me.
So here. Let my try this change I’m advocating for.
This school year has been a mess-up. Everything I could do wrong, I did. It was the manifestation of Murphy’s Law. I learned a lot of lessons, made a ton of mistakes, and had my pride wounded.
Sometimes, effort won’t always equal results. I would stay up all night studying for a test I was convinced my life depended on, and I would flunk it. It was easier to say that I hadn’t studied at all than to say I tried my hardest and it still wasn’t enough. I had always believed that the staircase to success was linear, straightforward. Effort reaps results. Work results in success. I wasn’t used to that not being the case. Now, I would spend hours and hours trying to reap the results I had always achieved, and I couldn’t.
It was frustrating, because concepts in school that were so easy for everyone else to comprehend simply could not make sense to me. No matter what I did or how hard I tried, I couldn’t get it. My friends would offer to help me, to tutor me, and I wouldn’t take it. It felt like I was back on that stupid soccer field, and I was near passing out, and I kept on reassuring the coach, the referee, “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.”
The hardest thing for me to admit is that I took on too much. It’s hard to admit, because all my peers seem to handle it just fine. They’re juggling all the same responsibilities that I am, and they’re keeping the balls in the air while mine are falling and rolling around at my feet. I’m watching them score all these goals in the net, running around the field as the sun glares down on them, and they’re all fine. They can all do it just fine, and I was stumbling around in circles, my vision blurry and head light, unable to catch up. It made me feel as hopelessly incapable as I had on that field, and it just made me push myself harder. I wanted to be able to do it. It was killing me, but I wanted to be able to do it. I felt I had to, that anything less was pathetic. This entire school year, I’ve tried to convince myself that I could handle my schedule. Now, as difficult as it is, I’m admitting to myself that I couldn’t.
I didn’t write blog posts as much I had meant to- I mean, this is my first one in a month! I thought I was going to finish my novel, and I’m still no where near the end. Instead of giving myself a participation award, I remained convinced that only a first place trophy was acceptable. That my mistakes just meant I wasn’t trying hard enough. So I would keep trying harder, but nothing worked. All that happened is my writing became more sloppy, more rushed.
It sounds maybe like I didn’t make a ton of mistakes, but I did. To me, at the time and also in retrospect, I felt like I couldn’t do anything right. Admitting all that in itself wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t even everything. Even so, there is a (metaphorical) physical manifestation of my pride writhing and shriveling on the ground before me. Years of habit aren’t easy to break, and neither is a mindset, but this is a start.
I think the most important reason we need participation awards is to celebrate our human nature. It’s to celebrate that sometimes, being human is enough. It’s to make competition healthy. Not competing against your best self, or anyone else- because you can lose in both. The whole point of a participation award is to show you that you can’t lose. No matter how many mistakes you make or how flawed you believe yourself to be- you’re still only human at the end of the day. To remember that is to be sane. That is what a participation award is meant for, and that’s why it’s so essential.
It is to recognize, that if you’re about to pass out on a soccer field and you ‘try harder’ despite the fact you can’t anymore, it could kill you. Just like trying harder in school, in writing, and in competition, when you’re doing everything you can- will only cause you to burn out. There isn’t any difference, and I think that’s really important to recognize.
Instead of beating myself up for not being able to handle the challenge I had given myself, I’m trying to congratulate myself on taking the challenge the first place. I’m trying to see the immense power in trying things, even if I fail.
Guess what? This trophy I drew? It’s for you. No matter where you are, how you feel, or who you are- this trophy is for you. As you can tell, it’s not perfect. It’s not, just like you’re not. I hope you’ll use this trophy to celebrate your imperfections, to own them, to love them. Your imperfections are the most interesting thing about you, I promise you. And even if no one else is celebrating them, I want you to. In the end, you’re the only one who matters. I hope now recognize how important participation awards are, and how deserving you are of one.