Not so long ago, we had this practice with kids’ sports that everyone who participated received a trophy. Win or lose, each kid was rewarded with a plastic image, usually gold-painted, mounted on a wood-looking piece of plastic. There was a little brass-like plaque with the kid’s name, team, date. There might be additional trophies or ribbons for “Best-Improved Player,” “Number One Hustler,” and so on. Trying to find twenty descriptors kept coaches and parents awake at night. The thinking was: God forbid some little darling felt left out or had his or her feelings hurt because a trophy or prize went to someone else. Better to recognize everyone.
The problem with that approach, recognizing everyone as equal, is its dishonesty. Not everyone played equally hard. Not everyone hustled. Not everyone put in extra practice, gave unrelenting affirmation to teammates, thanked the coaches and umpires, kept a positive attitude, and…you get the picture. The “everyone gets a trophy” philosophy, although well-intentioned, actually served to diminish everyone. Those who really did hustle, put in extra practice, and more, were told by this action (very subtly, of course) that their behavior was “less than.” That is, rather than actually elevating their behavior as an example to follow, they were pushed down to some (lower) common denominator. Unwittingly, they were shamed in the process. The message: “No matter how hard you try, you will never measure up” (at least not beyond the minimum standard that adults deemed acceptable).
I’m in favor of everyone participating getting a “participation ribbon,” especially if it represents someone who engaged in Little League affirmation (“atta boy,” “atta girl,” “you got this”). But only outstanding players ought to get trophies. I’m not suggesting that we get into a “one up-one down” comparison, thus exacerbating once again the shame culture in which we live. I want to underscore that any sport (or playing a musical instrument, painting, dance, etc.) is strengthened by effort. Effort, attitude, practice and persistency. We are not talking about perfection, but we are talking about progress. Some people will just have more natural ability than others to hit a ball, paint a picture, leap gracefully through the air, or solve math problems. Even they can maximize their abilities by practicing, pushing their limits. Others might see a little improvement with such effort, but never achieve the level of execution that more gifted people might. NO big deal. Everyone is gifted at some level, with something. It may manifest itself at an early age or it may take years to unfold. Who knows how gentle, caring and attentive someone may be in the neonatal intensive care unit until that person completes his or her training and actually hits the floor as a nurse or doctor. Knowing how to engage in Little League affirmation with teammates, patients, and families may end up being a critical component – maybe even a life-saving effort – in that little person’s struggle to survive.
Back to Little League. If someone misses a pitch, no need to rag on the person or belittle them. It’s also not helpful to “lie” about their efforts. Better: acknowledge the missed ball, but hold on to the affirmation, with “shake it off, get the next one.” Then, when the dust settles and the game is over, ask the player to put in some extra time in the batting cage with supervision. Not everyone will shine in every situation. Everyone can, however, offer encouragement to one’s family, colleagues, teammates, neighbors. If we could “just” learn how to give and receive Little League affirmation to those around us, relentlessly, not sporadically, imagine how much our common life together could improve.