Should we give participation awards?
I recently went to a pony class at a horse show and saw a stack of “didn’t win/participation ribbons” that said things like, “Didn’t Fall Off.” I was shocked. Really? Is that a good idea? Here are my humble (and expert) thoughts on why that is not a good idea.
It teaches them to lower their standards.
Do we really want to teach our children to celebrate the bare minimum? Is falling off the highest goal we can come up with? OK, I get it, it is an attempt to have the child find something positive in not winning, but if a child focuses on that, it will soon become their new goal. We don’t want to encourage (or reward) them to lower their standards.
It ruins their focus.
The subject of falling off a horse is exactly what we don’t want children to think about when they ride. Whatever we focus on tends to happen, so no, don’t even think about that! Tony Robbins, the peak performance/transformation coach that I trained with, tells the story about riding in a car with a racecar driver who told him, “If you start spinning out, whatever you do, don’t look at the wall or you will drive right into it! Focus on where you want to go instead!” And then the driver purposely spun out the car, and of course Tony kept looking at the wall that he was afraid they were going to hit! That’s what we naturally do. Where our focus goes, energy flows! It’s the law of attraction.
We want our young riders to focus on the actions they need to perform well; like staying balanced, keeping their eyes up and in the direction they are going, using their seat, feeling the horse, keeping the weight in their heels, keeping their hands quiet, etc. Focusing on those things is what will not only keep them from falling off, but will make them more likely to win “real” ribbons … with the right colors, like blue, and names like First Place. The stuff they really want! (Not the booby prize.)
It cheats them out of developing emotional strength.
Let’s admit it: we are trying to keep our children from being disappointed. Why? Isn’t being disappointed a fact of competition? Isn’t it a fact of life? If that is true, then wouldn’t it be better for a child to learn how to effectively deal with the human feeling of disappointment?
Sure, it breaks our heart when we see them crushed and crying, but we need to have the emotional strength to teach our children how to have emotional strength! Learning to deal with negative emotions is one of the most important things every child (and adult) needs to have in their tool chest, or tack trunk, for life. And we don’t build emotional strength by running away from (smoothing over) our feelings of disappointments! That’s the problem with our culture today. It’s all about comfort and not feeling pain. That’s why our kids are so vulnerable to taking drugs (or why the colleges have to perform trauma counseling if the student’s political candidate doesn’t win an election). They don’t know how to deal with adversity and negative emotions or how to make themselves feel good (without addictive substances or behaviors)!
Listen, what we don’t want is to have children away at college and unable to handle adversity when it comes their way. (And they don’t give out consolation ribbons in college for every little missed goal or disappointment.)
It cheats them out of being resilient.
Resilience is the practice of attaching new meanings to events or changing our perceptions. It is the ability to get up after we’ve been knocked down. Children showing ponies is the perfect time to start teaching children about one of the most powerful leverages in life; how to use failure to your advantage. There is an old saying about the key to success in life: “Fail soon and often.”
I grew up in Vermont at a very large sports camp that my family owned. We had riding, waterskiing, tennis, sailing and a lot of other sports. Every hour of every day during every summer was about learning and failing. Every day we set goals, and more often than not, we didn’t meet them. However, we had fun trying AND we learned how to deal with disappointment and humiliation in front of other campers (when we fell or flopped).
After a while, we learned that it hurt less if we didn’t look at and try to compete with the other campers, and instead just stayed focused on beating our own personal best. Of course, failure is a valuable learning tool. But we never used the word failure and we never attached that meaning to it. We understood that that was the process (for everyone) for learning how to get better in sports. It happened so often that it was not a big deal.
It prevents them from discovering the pieces of their own puzzle and figuring out their unique tools for leverage.
We can use a horse show that didn’t result in receiving ribbons to teach our children how to use failure as leverage to practice harder and to perform better the next time. Think about it; if they are receiving a ribbon (for just showing up or not falling off), where is the incentive to get mad at themselves for not practicing enough or to encourage themselves to try harder the next time? No, we don’t want them to walk around angry all the time, and they won’t if we teach them how to channel that emotion and the resulting energy.
Leverage is a very important and overlooked tool. Every child and adult reacts differently to various types of leverage. For example, there is “move towards” leverage, such as the goal of winning a blue ribbon, and then there is “move away from” leverage, such as the embarrassment or disappointment of not winning a blue ribbon. Which one of those two works the best at getting your child motivated into action? So negative emotions, such as a disappointed or angry child who has just lost, can be a great thing if we teach them how to use it as a tool to move themselves forward into winning more often. Which emotions work best for your child: sadness, fear of embarrassment or anger? See how counterproductive it is to “soften” or delete the emotions behind not winning?
It prevents them from learning how to find, celebrate, and reward themselves all on their own (instead of waiting for or depending upon someone else to recognize and do it for them).
What did they do correctly during that show … other than not falling off? They didn’t hit their top goals, but what about the next highest goals? Where did they improve from the last time they showed? Were they less anxious? Were they more focused? And don’t forget to acknowledge their behavior outside of the show ring. Were they helpful and gracious to the other riders? Did they display a good attitude all day? Did they show good sportsmanship?
You may be wondering, “But why can’t we come up with ribbons for all that great stuff?” We can, yes. But shouldn’t children learn to celebrate themselves on their own? This is called internal validation. It is another important tool to learn. Life doesn’t come with automatic ribbons for just showing up, and certainly not for failing. (Of course, we first must change the word failing to “a learning opportunity.”)
And when people are NOT validating your child, or perhaps even putting them down, you want your child to have the inner strength, skills, and desire to find reasons to feel good about themselves! And to celebrate that!
I am from the old school, I guess. All the things I mentioned above, those have always been the great life lessons that sports teach us. It is one of the many important reasons why we put our children into sports to begin with; to teach children how to step outside their comfort zone, learn something new, set goals, accept defeat, and how to build emotional strength and resiliency.
Help children to use the defeat to bounce back even better! Help them learn how to celebrate and reward themselves all on their own. Learning to take disappointment and tweaking it into a powerful learning lesson that makes you try harder and to be better the next time is a gift. And we shouldn’t sabotage that life-altering gift of success skills with a cheap ribbon for not winning.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Nancy Dye is an equestrian breakthrough mindset coach and resilience trainer helping people to transform the quality of their lifestyles.
Nancy is certified as a strategic interventionist by the official coach training school of Tony Robbins and has over 30 years as a change agent; shifting people into peak performance.
Nancy specializes in solving the puzzle of why people are not performing at their best and customizing the right strategy for “jumping over” adversity. She handles all areas of a rider’s lifestyle to include relationships, career, addictions, weight loss, health and transitioning through life stages.
With a past career in corporate sales and as a luxury lifestyle Realtor, Nancy has been coached by some the top sales trainers in the corporate world, as well as by some of the most elite coaches in the world of sports. Nancy redesigns the inner lives of athletes, executives, celebrities, entrepreneurs, and elite military and veterans.
Nancy is married to Jack Miles, a former Olympian gymnast who is inducted into four athletic Hall of Fames. For one-on-one coaching or information on her workshops or riding clinics, Nancy can be reached at NancyDyeResults@gmail.com.