Winning, Losing, And Participating: Shut Up About The Trophy


Ah, that common refrain.

You shouldn’t just get a trophy for participating.

When everyone gets a trophy, nobody wins.

If everybody is special, nobody is special.

Second place is last place.

And on and on.

It’s a criticism pointed at millennials. Or, wait — Gen Y. No! Wait. Gen X.


Except, that’s kinda horseshitty, isn’t it?

When did we become so cynical about participation?

So sour-faced about people who are doing stuff?

This is usually aimed at children — or the environment around children (meaning, parents, schools and other institutions), and it is aimed very squarely as a criticism, but let me tell you something as the parent of a five-year-old: getting a child to participate in something can feel like a Herculean task. Just getting your kid to sit down and DO THE THING THAT IS PRESENTLY BEING DONE can feel like the completion of an epic quest. You’d have an easier time stimulating the prostate of a galloping bison. Getting children to do the thing is difficult for an unholy host of reasons. Maybe they’re scared of the other participants. Or scared of failing. (Or scared of what you’ll think of them when they fail.) Maybe they’re bored. Could be that they don’t understand what’s being asked of them, or instead that they’re obstinate and would much rather do the OTHER THING instead of THIS THING. This only gets worse as a kid gets older because kids gather a lot of baggage about doing things, and sometimes that baggage is weighted with the (arguably capitalist) rhetoric of success and failure: you either WIN or you LOSE, it’s either PASS or FAIL, you’re the CHAMPION or you’re a SUCK-FACED SHITBABY. And teenagers kinda figure out that game, and they check right the fuck out. They stop participating, in part because it’s not cool, and in part because I think teenagers are actually surprisingly good at smell-testing bullshit. They can detect these cultural shenanigans, and so they cynically give the middle-finger to the entire process and they piss off somewhere to get drunk and grope each other.

But doing stuff? It’s how the world works. It’s what makes the world happen. Participation is pretty much everything. Winning is a narrow selection without much meaning. Most of life is just showing up and doing the work — whether that’s work with family, or school, or friendships, or a proper job. Show up. Do the work. Do the best. Be the best you. And if you do that? That’s amazing. Because most people don’t actually do that.


When I was a kid, I did soccer afterschool. I hated it. Fuck soccer. Fuck everything about soccer. Fuck practice and the drills and the coach and any of the kids who liked soccer. I was young — this was elementary school — and even then the focus was on leagues and getting better not to get better but getting better to win. It was a competition.

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with competing. At a certain level, that’s what you’re in to do, and why you get involved. But at that level, at the elementary school level, the purpose is — or should be — different. The purpose is, hey, here’s how you work on a team. Here’s how you follow instructions. Here’s how you exist as a physical being who moves his body around in the world instead of sitting in front of a television. Here is how you participate.

But that’s not how they treated it.

I didn’t get an award for participating even though that’s the whole point of me being there. Everyone should’ve been hopping up and down because HEY HOLY CRAP YOU’RE HERE ON THE FIELD AND YOU’RE SCARED AND YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND THAT’S EXCITING AND DAMNIT IF IT’S NOT A VICTORY JUST FOR SHOWING UP AND PUTTING IN THE TIME. Doing a new thing! Being present! Partaking in the task at hand! I wanted to feel good for that, not for enduring an onerous afterschool program driving me to be an elementary school soccer champion and by the way did I mention I fucking hate soccer. I would’ve been happy with a participation trophy — and no, I wouldn’t have gotten confused thinking that somehow it was equal to actually being the winner, because winning still feels like winning. Kids aren’t confused by participation trophies. They’re not idiots. Yet we disdain participation because it is expected.

The disdain of participation is tied in with our disgust surrounding failure. Participation is barely above loserdom, and many associate the two (remember: second place is last place). But that’s not how the world works. Or, more importantly, it’s not how the world needs to work.

As a writer, I meet lots of aspiring writers who want to write but are, for various reasons, afraid to do so. They’re afraid they’ll get it wrong. They look so far ahead they see a world where they won’t be able to accomplish the thing, so why bother? They have the desire to do the thing but are somehow afraid to participate for fear of failing and not winning.

Except, there is no winning.

There exists a sliding scale of various milestones, sure — cascading victory conditions that open up, but this is less like WIN THE GAME AND GET THE GOLDEN TROPHY and more like PLAY YOUR CHARACTER IN THE RPG SO YOU SECURE MORE EXPERIENCE POINTS TO BUY COOL UPGRADES TO YOUR LIFE. Writing doesn’t come with a golden cup. It’s not like once a year one writer gets to shed her carapace and emerge as J.K. Rowling to become the temporary headmaster of Hogwarts’ School of Storytelling Magic. Further, failure is an essential part of what we do. I wrote five books before I got the sixth one published. I wrote countless unfinished books in and around those first five. Life is constant failure. I’m sure I fucked up the first sentence I ever tried to write. I’m sure I shitted up the first paragraph. I have one of the first stories I ever wrote in elementary school, and newsflash: it is about as entertaining as watching a turtle fuck a hot jockstrap. (Actually, that might be pretty entertaining.) Failure is a critical state. My son does things all the time, and most of those things he does poorly — then he does them better, and better still, until he succeeds. And you might say, THERE, TA-DA, HE WON, and that’s true.

But I didn’t chide him for trying all the while until he got there.

Every time he tried and failed to write his alphabet, I didn’t play a fart sound buzzer and boo him from the bleachers. I did not merely champion him upon success, I cheered him for trying. For doing. For participating. Because that’s how you get there. And it’s the hardest part!

My writing career has been all about participating. Participating when it was hard. Participating when I did not know what the floppy fuck I was doing. Participating when other people told me not to bother because I was going to fail, because it was an impossible career, because I would make better money if I just dug ditches instead. Why try when you might fail? Doesn’t participation just lead to failure anyway? Why bother at all?

Participation has been my everything. And rejection has been vital to that. Rejection is a battle scar. It’s proof I’m in the arena. It’s some Viking-level shit. It’s two gladiators showing off their injuries: “I GOT THIS ONE WHEN I FAILED TO UNSEAT THROMGAR THE INCONTINENT FROM HIS WYVERNOUS TIGERWOLF. I LOST THE FIGHT THAT DAY, BUT I HAVE THIS COOL-ASS SCAR TO SHOW FOR IT. AND I LIVE TO FIGHT AGAIN.” Rejection is a sign of doing the thing and surviving. You know who doesn’t ever get rejections? People who don’t participate. Most people write a novel once every never, and if you’re writing a novel — or doing whatever the thing is that you wanna goddamn do — then that is a victory worth celebrating.

Here’s the thing: we say, we shouldn’t reward people for the bare minimum, and when we say that, we mean participation. But participation is not the bare minimum. Observing? That’s the minimum. Watching instead of doing is about as low as you go. The kids on the field kicking the ball? They’re doing shit, man. That’s awesome. Good for them. The parents in the stands decrying the trophies those kids will get for participating? They’re fucking spectators. They’re only bystanders, not doing a good goddamn thing except placing their own proxy hopes and dreams on their little genetic champions.

I cheer my kid when he tries a new food. I cheer him when he draws, or reads, or does something he’s afraid to do. I cheer his participation in life, because that’s what matters. That’s all we have. Winning is hollow. Getting to the end of the road only happens by walking it. Participation is its own special victory, and fuck anybody who says different. Double-fuck you if you hate on your own kids for not coming home with the win. Huzzah to adults for participating, too. You vote? Good for you. You participate in a charity? Fuck yes. You DO THE THING THAT MUST BE DONE? Have a lollipop, you wonderful person, you.

Get shut of the illusion that winning is everything, participation is nothing, failure is the end.

Perfection is the enemy. Failure is more important to us than victory. You will fail a lot more than you win, and you learn a lot more when you lose — you don’t improve through victory. Victory is a plateau. You improve by capitalizing on your loss.

Be present.


No, it isn’t the only victory. Yes, it’s only a small one.

But it’s a victory just the same.

We all die. Nobody wins that contest. Life is not The Hunger Games, man.

But we are all here. We can all chip in. We can all do the thing.

Participate, and don’t be made to feel small for doing so.

GO DO THE THING. And celebrate doing it.

120 responses to “Winning, Losing, And Participating: Shut Up About The Trophy”

  1. YES FUCK SOCCER. When I was little, one of my much older brothers played soccer like a gladiator. He was the Maximus of his team (although his jersey said ‘Spanky’ for some reason) and he never came home without blood and mud on him, raving like a revival tent preacher. I wanted to be an ass-kicking all-conquering sport warrior, too, so I begged my parents to let me do soccer as soon as I was old enough. They agreed, but because I vacillated in my life’s ambitions hourly, they commanded that I could only join if I would see it through to the end of the season. On the first day of practice, when I walked up to the coach, introduced my tiny self, and asked what the rules were, HE LAUGHED IN MY FACE. You couldn’t really call what I did that year ‘participating’ because all I did was stand motionless in one corner of the field, avoiding eye contact with my teammates, coach, spectators, and even the ball. No one ever explained how the goddamn game was played. Coach Andy was the PE equivalent of Mr. DiMartino from Daria. If he could have unwound half a centimeter to explain some rudimentary shit to me and maybe made me feel the slightest bit appreciated for bringing the team’s total number up to the bare minimum required for us to play I probably would have made his dreams come true (and/or possibly hospitalized the entire opposing team) by imitating my berserker brother and taking as many heads as goals. A little praise for participation might have gone a long way with a kid as easily butthurt as me. (My brother, now that I think of it, may well have lost every game he played, but he played very much like he was on the Fury Road. He had a different coach, of course.)

    • Got all wound up and forgot my freakin’ point. Point was: I learned NOT TO TRY. I did go out for a sport or extracurricular activity again until high school and then it was teeny weeny little groups of friends I was hanging out with anyway. (You know, French Club.)

      • For me it was baseball. Little league. The dance that encompassed the epitome of summer, and boy do I loath Baseball. I can say though that I have a healthy respect for the sport and understand why people love it, but I am sent into a regressive state when I get anywhere near a ball diamond. I have inherent flashbacks of my coach realizing that I was a timid player, afraid of speculation, and stuffing me way out into left field (where the ball literally never goes with small children). This is where I was then ridiculed by my peers, coach, and even other parents. So yes, I thoroughly agree. I learned to never try at team sports. I excelled at swimming, cycling, skiing, a vast other individual sports. But FUCK Baseball. If I had had more encouragement, or even someone to take me aside and tell me occasionally, “you’re doing great” then perhaps this comment would sound completely different. I feel more people need to understand the importance of inclusion and get off the competitive horse. It’s not always about winning. Trying is what matters. You never learn if you don’t try.

        • Exactly,you never learn if you don’t try.The coach is so important to making every kid feel included and given praise for any little thing they do right(positive reinforcement).
          Regretfully , many coaches are frustrated “would have beens”!

      • Turned eighteen an’ said: “As God is my witness they’re not gonna make me… I’m gonna live through this, an’ when it’s all over, I’ll never play softball again.” [falls to knees, dramatic music, buries fielders mitt, Technicolor sun flames into the west]

    • Coaches and teachers when were are young are supposed to help shape and mold us. Unfortunately, there are some mean, uncaring bastards in the mix and they do mold and shape us, in the wrong way. It does make it so exciting when you do find the ones doing it right though, true beacons of hope.

    • You had an incompetent coach,you could have been taught how to play and probably enjoyed playing at whatever level you reached.Don’t confuse his incompetence for a lack of participation on your part.,that’s where parents can help get kids into a program that’s really helpful to each child.Some people are going to be obsessed with winning,no matter how they get there(brutality included).Again, the leadership of the coach is paramount to success of any child.

  2. You know, I used to be all about competition. I was on the exact opposite side of where you wrote. It came from years of being in a culture that rewarded only wins and never learns. This piece actually made sense to me. Especially about the difference between operator and spectator. It also helped me keep grinding at trying to write more and tell the world fuck off even if its fan fic. Keep being real, it helps some of us assholes who are still trying to find our voice.

    • Mhorg – Rock that Fan-Fic! Ain’ nuthin’ “Just” about fan-fic if yer doin’ it serious and everything. It’s all about the writing and gettin’ it done. Now jam some of yer bad stuff up there on Kindle Worlds and get read, get paid.

      • Man, Fanfic is what made P. D. James who she is today. While many man question the tasetefulness, the sexual politics, and the overall quality of her output, one cannot deny that that woman tried and boy howdy has she succeeded.

          • Shame on you, Helen, for planting that image in my head. Now I’m wondering if that’s why he didn’t hear the murder happening right next door.

  3. I would say that yes, participation awards are good things. Having the guts to try anything is something that should be recognized. I would also say that trophies are good things. After trying and failing a number of times you won, you got published. You won the gold Chuck. You got paid. You wrote more and in the act of your winning, you have inspired others to get back up when they fall on their ass and try again. As much as some may come to your blog for the unique way you can use a form of the word fuck as a noun, verb, adjective and adverb all in one sentence, the fact that you won brings people here more often. You got published. You did the slog through all the down times and finally, there was a prize at the end. That inspires others. You winning inspires others to keep trying. So your wins, they are also wins for the people who you inspire.
    Just because you won the gold doesn’t mean I can’t win it as well.
    But because you won the gold, it gets me thinking. . . .maybe I can too.

  4. Perfection is the enemy.
    Time and time again, Chuck, I feel like you are writing to me. Calling me on my own bullsh*t and pushing me to be a better human. Thank you.

  5. At primary school my sister was the only child not to win a race on school Sports Day. I will forever love her class teacher who gave her a winners certificate for effort. The certificate stayed on her wall for years, and gave her the confidence to keep trying new things.

  6. Damn straight. Being a kid & realizing how many things you still suck at is hard, and participation trophies address that nicely. Thank you for saying it in this ‘don’t coddle your loser-child’ society…

  7. I loved soccer as a kid. I was only an average player (maybe not even that), but I was on some awesome teams with some very above average players, which might be why I enjoyed it so much. That, and I loved to socialize and soccer practice was a great time to socialize with my team-mates.

    Thank you for this post though. It’s something I needed to read; it was especially timely for me.

  8. *cough* I may have been know to shower my kid with glitter when she digs into a hard math problem.

  9. As the father of a two-year-old, the words I hate to hear her say the most are, “I can’t do it.” First, I know you can, you did it yesterday. Second, you didn’t even try, and when I eventually get you to try, you do it just fine.

    Third, what unholy swamp creature rose out of the muck and taught you that phrase? “I can’t do it”? You’re TWO, you should not know that combination of syllables. I should be grabbing you mid-air after you try to dive off the top of a slide head first, not trying to convince you that, YES, you CAN still put your shoes on just like yesterday and the day before and the day before…

    • I tell the kids in my preschool class, “Don’t tell me can’t, that’s a yucky word! Say ‘I need help’ instead.”
      And then they yell at me when I say something like, “I can’t find my phone!” 😀

  10. I grew up in the fifties, we didn’t have a quota of $350.00 selling Kazoos, Whirly Bird Beanies, and self stick wrapping paper to be on a team. We just showed up on the field, to PLAY. It taught, me to show up every single time, and accept the possibility I may not be chosen for the “A” team but the “B” shoot, I was on a team and I had to determine what I needed to do to get on the “A” team next season. This I know, be there when they hurt and offer safe passage without leverage, and appologize profusely when his is the only softball shirt in the team picture that was bleached from Daffodil yellow, to lemonade.

  11. Thanks for this. I’m perpetually frustrated at the way the competition-obsessive mindset makes people feel like they’re failing unless they’re hitting it big. But just the fact that they’re doing something (MAKING something, often, because I hear this most from other people who like to create things) fucking matters.

  12. Great blog, Chuck! As one of those apparently entitled millennials, I completely agree. I got something resembling a participation trophy in a speech team competition – there were only five of us and I got fifth place. Contrary to the opinion of self-proclaimed millennial experts, it didn’t do wonders for my self-esteem. But I kept doing it because I liked doing it.

    Recently I got an honorable mention in a short story competition and I still had people calling it a “participation trophy” because, if it’s not first place, what’s the point? But I am going to keep writing because I like doing it.

  13. This makes me feel better about all of the times I was judged and even bullied for participating in things I maybe wasn’t exactly the best at. 🙂

  14. I can see the t shirt now, Thromgar the Incontinent says ‘just do it for the hell of it!’

    Great post, I remember getting bad order marks every week for a term in phys ed just because I couldn’t run 100 metres in less than 15 seconds which, the teacher said, I should be able to do. Unfortunately, even though I tried really hard (bad order marks were a big deal) I just couldn’t do it. I’d had knee problems and been off games for two years previously which might have contributed to my being slow. I never achieved it though. 🙂

    I’m 47 now and even after all these years I still despise her.



  15. This is why I keep a little sheet of gold stars in my desk at all times. Because some days, man? Some days I need a reward just for putting pants on in the morning.

  16. I played softball. I freaking sucked at it. The participation trophy gave me a happy feeling of /accomplishment/. Even though I was soooooo unbearably horrible at it, I won for /trying/. And making a FOOL of myself, getting laughed at and mocked by the other players. But I freaking tried, and thats what mattered.
    I gave up softball. And sports. Until I was 14 and learned I could play friendly soccer for a homeschool PE group. I was fairly good at it.
    After my softball experience and lack of skills, I had/have a ton of baggage that carries into my writing. Nobody wanted me on their team, or in their field…. I was the homeschool kid without friends, and weird, with sucky social skills, and intelligence, the bible-know-it-all in youth group. It made me a bit of a Freak and Outcast.
    But it didn’t mean I never tried.

    Now I hate the trophies, and understand why Gen X wants to get rid of them. They hurt. They remind us, as adults, that we /sucked/. However, we forget, as you said, that it means we TRIED. We participated. And we enjoyed the moment.

    I’m writing a High Fantasy series, and have a business in drawing fantasy maps. The crippling self-doubt hurts. Pushing through to the otherside is such a wonderful reward, and the assurance that *I* know what I’m doing, and *I* am capable comes alive for a moment.
    Those moments, collected in participation trophies, would be enough to remind us what we are capable of.

  17. Also, the people who say, “Real life doesn’t give out participation medals” are flat-out wrong. A paycheque is one of many examples of a participation trophy. You go to your job, you do the job, you get paid. You don’t have to be Employee of the Month (though you might try). You don’t even have to fully endorse everything you do (we’re looking at you, Kim Davis). You just have to show up on time and participate.

  18. If you’re not going to get recognition for winning, why try?Why make any effort if you can get a “participation trophy” just for being there.Why give it all you’ve got if it doesn’t mean anything special?
    In life there’s always gonna be someone who gets the prize(“the job”, “the part”,”the scholarship”,”the man/woman”…there’s no prize for not being the one who gets it, but that doesn’t stop you from trying again, participating in the race,in life.
    As a parent it’s your job to help your child understand that there’s no shame or heartbreak in not winning as long as they tried, and continue to try and improve.
    Someone will be the winner(that’s life), but you can’t get there if you don’t try.
    The Olympics are contests with people who have been winners in their sport, many times over, but they all can’t be a gold,silver or bronze trophy winner…but they Try to win,they train and sacrifice to be able to participate.
    Winning is great,and should be acknowledged , but if everyone is getting a trophy there’s no reason to try to get a “gold”!There’s got to be an incentive to try and do your best.Adults,gen-x and little kids have to strive for something,and to strive requires participation and hard work.
    BTW, “using swear words” doesn’t make your point any clearer,or meaningful.Do you teach your kids to use swear words to make their point?Kids emulate adults,watch what you’re teaching them!

    • Well, shit, Susan, I don’t know what to say about that. Except that life isn’t a contest, and I don’t mind if my kids or other kids are rewarded for partaking and performing.

    • I find it somewhat hilarious that you bring up the Olympics, because that was going to be my counter-argument. You think the bronze medalists don’t wish they got silver? Do you think the silver medalists don’t wish they got gold? Not all trophies are equal: “but if everyone is getting a trophy there’s no reason to try to get a “gold”” strikes me as a particularly ludicrous statement.

      Beyond medals, if you ever hear non-medalists speak, they say things like, “It was an honor just to participate.” And it’s not just an honor, there’s tangible rewards as well. They may not get a medal, but being able to say, “I ran in the 100m dash in the 2004 Olympics,” is a trophy, of a sort, and sure to open doors. To expand on this some, it’s certainly more impressive to say, “I was top of my class at MIT,” but, “I graduated from MIT,” is still really impressive, and even, “I got my AA from community college.”

      Beyond all that, I haven’t actually competed against another person for anything in life since I got my job. Now, I work with my team toward a common goal. We compete against time, and technological limitations, and our own failings, all of which you learn just as much about participating as you do “winning”.

      Seeing everything in life as a competition is a such a narrow, primitive view.

  19. Kids don’t start out on a level playing field; some are taller and stronger and lucky enough to develop hand-eye coordination early. Winning with smaller kids is just rewarding a genetic advantage.

    Personally, I have no interest in competing, except to improve myself – maybe getting a little faster, making less errors, increasing stamina, etc. Still a trophy or medal works for a nice memento if not a reward.

  20. Participation is so undervalued these days, and in the context where children are involved, as a parent I can’t help but think what’s the real harm in giving children participation trophies? The message sent is fairly clear, hey look we all know you turned up, tried your best and still no cigar. Here’s a little something you can look at to remember your efforts by or from this trophy on you aim to improve to win next time.

    I really don’t see the harm in it. Acknowledging participation AND effort can only give participants a sense of being worthy competitors, there’s no illusion that they didn’t lose. Because if we don’t foster a sense of acknowledging and honoring participation at the early ages how do we really know that we are raising the true future Olympians when so many have fallen at the first hurdle – so to speak – and are discouraged from getting up again.

    I’m not saying to sugar coat or lessen the blow of rejection or failure by dishing out these participation trophies but the message behind them is clear, participation is vital and is no easy feat for some. It’s an achievement in itself surely, no harm done. Credit where credit is due.

  21. When did we become so cynical about participation? About the time we realized the cupcakes getting “Hey you lost Trophies” now cry ANY time things don’t go their way. Suc It Up Buttter Cup.

    • Nah, the kids today are doing what their forebears did: fighting Nazis.

      Also, sounds like you should have participated more in spelling class.

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