Sunday, January 22, 2012
I'm the tenth place champion!
Do you like my lovely ribbon collage? That's just how I poke fun at myself. A blue ribbon is synonymous with first place. Red is for second, and white is for third. After that, as you can see, it's reject colors.
Most meets these days don't even give ribbons. Everyone gets a medal, and I do mean EVERYONE. First place looks the same as tenth. Some meets don't even give placements--the entire field of competitors is divided into thirds. The top third are the gold medal winners, the middle third get the silver, and the bottom third get the bronze. I guess that's good for little bitty kids. Everybody leaves with a neck full of medals.
In my first meet, I'm pretty sure I left with two green ribbons. That's sixth or seventh place. And I was happy to get them. That sort of sums up my "career." Sure, I ended up with a few blues, reds, and whites here and there. But you know what made those wins sweeter? The fact that I was so used to beige, brown, and maroon.
Kids will be okay if we don't toss copious amounts of participatory bling at them. They'll be okay if we tell them they didn't win or even that they placed last. Maybe they'll work harder next time, or maybe they'll learn to be genuinely impressed by and happy for the kids that win all the time. Maybe they'll eventually develop a delightfully self-effacing wit.
Once I coached a group of very young first-time competitors. They were so cute, and they seemed to be having fun. One mother wasn't impressed, and at the end of the season she pulled her kid out of gymnastics. She said: "How am I supposed to tell a six-year-old she didn't win?"
Well, gee. How about, "You didn't win."
But also, how about, "You didn't win, but you did fantastic. You've learned so much and you're getting better and better every day. Did you have fun? Don't forget to congratulate your teammates and clap for the girls that DID win."
I was not always a good sport. One time when I was about ten, I cried because my own teammate got a higher score on beam than I did, when I thought I did better than she did. What a rotten kid I was that day. My coach got very angry at me, and boy, did I deserve it.
That spurt of brattiness aside, I learned to embrace my role as perennial green-ribbon-winner. I didn't expect to win, so I didn't feel pressure. I knew I wasn't heading for the Olympics, or college gymnastics. I was just enjoying myself with a fun and healthy sport. I was pleased enough that I did have a few individual skills that were on par with or better than some of the blue ribbon girls, even if I wouldn't ever be as good overall. I did the best I could.
What if people told their kids, "Don't bother being on the varsity football team if you don't plan to go pro."
Or, "Don't bother writing a novel if it's not going to evoke comparisons to Tolstoy."
Or, "Don't bother graduating if you're not going to be the valedictorian."
So go on and keep score at the 5-year-old soccer game. Have an awards ceremony at school for the kids that make good grades. Don't worry if your kid comes home empty-handed from the gymnastics meet. Not everyone will come home with a prize, but they can handle it...or at least, they'll learn to. Maybe they'll even work their way up to tenth place.