by Risa Green
Both of my kids had their last basketball games of the season yesterday. As much as I hemmed and hawed about the weekday practices and the games on the weekends, I’m really glad that they both played. For my daughter, basketball has toughened her up a bit – when she first started playing, if she would get bonked on the nose or the head with a ball, she’d burst into tears and come running off the court. But after discovering that running off the court means she can’t go back into the game until the next time they call subs, she’s learned to shake it off and keep playing. And my son…well, when he started this season, he was totally oblivious. On defense, he would stand in his “box” with one hand up and his other hand in his mouth, facing the wrong way and not even noticing that there was an entire game going on behind him. I won’t pretend that he transformed into an aggressive, dominant player, but at least now when he runs down the court he’s paying attention, and not whispering pyooh-pyooh as he shoots at imaginary bad guys on the side lines.
So yes, basketball has been a positive experience for my kids, and I believe that doing drills and learning to pass and understanding the dynamics of a team are great lessons for both sports and life in general. And that, I think, is a reward in and of itself. But because we live in an age where children must always be made to feel special and important and where having something tangible is always better than having something intangible, simply feeling good about your season is not enough. No, yesterday, after their team parties, my children were both presented with trophies. And not little trophies, mind you. I measured. These trophies are fifteen inches high, and depict golden players dunking in mid-air atop silver and black pillars, with my kids’ names and the names of their teams inscribed into the bases. I mean, if you walked into my son’s bedroom and saw this trophy on his bookshelf, you would think I had a sixteen year-old state champion who was being recruited by Division 1 hoops programs; not a five year-old in the Cheviot Hills Recreational Center’s Little Dribbler’s Division.
Now, I don’t want to be all, Grandpa-Walton-back-in-the-good-old-days preachy or anything, but when I was a kid, getting a trophy actually meant something. You didn’t get a trophy just because you played on a team. You got a trophy if your team came in first in the entire league. Or, at the team party, you got a trophy if you were the best player or the player with the best attitude or the team MVP. Everybody else got a pat on the head and a “thanks for playing, hope to see you again next year.” Sure, some kids were disappointed that they didn’t take home a trophy, but I’m sure it inspired a lot of them to try harder next time. And, more importantly, the kids who did win the trophies knew that they had earned them through hard work and dedication. I had a friend in high school who was a star softball player, and her room was filled with trophies and ribbons from all of the tournaments she had played in and all of the teams that she had dominated. She was proud of them, and rightly so, since it had taken her years to put together that kind of display. Meanwhile, my daughter is in second grade, and just from simply showing up at AYSO, basketball and softball for the last three years, she could fill an entire case with trophies that mean absolutely nothing to her.
So the question is, what happened? How did we get from my friend’s room in 1988 to my daughter’s in 2010? When did trophies stop becoming about the skill and the effort, and turn into just another way to make our kids feel accomplished without having to actually work at anything? When did it become more important for everyone to feel like it’s fair than it is to reward the kids who worked the hardest and played the best? Call me old-fashioned, but life is not always fair. And frankly, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing for my kids to be disappointed once in a while because someone who tried harder than they did won the trophy.
See also by Risa Green: Sportsophobia