Participation trophy…really…NOT!

There has been a trend in the public education system about awarding everyone just for participating versus actually awarding people who excel. They refer to these as participation awards and this trend has been creeping into the martial arts now for a few years. I have had many discussions about tournaments, circuits, events and even martial arts classes with many different school owners and promoters over the years. During these talks the topic of giving out awards to everyone is always a hot topic…and rightfully so.

You see, in the martial arts, there are literally hundreds of philosophical quotes attributed to the development of the self through training. We often hear things like “the only person you are in competition with is yourself” or “the martial arts are not a competition”. While these things all remain true on varying degrees, the watering down of teaching people martial arts into a recreational hobby seems to be better known than the true value of what martial arts training is about. Recently I had a talk with a school owner about tournaments to which he stated “We only do in house tournaments and all of our kids get trophies regardless of how they do. We do this because I don’t want to take a student to a tournament, have them lose and see them quit”. I was both sickened by this statement and seriously let down by the person who made it to be quite frank.

The effect of giving everyone awards also has parlayed into the belt awarding for people, even if they are not good enough to earn their next one, as well. I have set on promotion boards at other schools and watched in disbelief when a student would be passed for their next belt even when they couldn’t perform the required material or wasn’t very good at it just because they got through the exam. Then, the instructor, had the nerve to ask me if I would sign off on the certificate to which I exclaimed “NO” and left.

While I am all for giving accolades when they are due for things such as improving well, hard work, honest effort I am definitely against awarding people who fail at something. This common political correctness of giving out awards to everyone regardless of how they are doing is leading our future leaders down a path where they think they don’t have to work hard to excel at something because they get an award for just “showing up”. Well, to be upfront, if you are a martial artist and especially if you are a teacher of the martial arts this is failing your students period!

A few years ago I went to a tournament where they broke down every single division into smaller groups to make sure there were only 4 people in each one. This way every single competitor would get an award. I totally disagreed with it because it was a COMPETITION, not a daycare activity. The promoter and I had a discussion which resulted in me leaving the event and I have never supported one of their events since. While I don’t mind seeing competitors get a ribbon or something small for competing I am a firm believer that only the top 4 should be awarded medals or trophies and those awards should say what PLACE they earned on them.

There is validity to this as well. Children that never learn the disappointment from losing are going to struggle in life because they won’t understand what hard work, discipline and never giving up are about. In the 26 years I have taught Karate I have watched kids who thought they sucked at Karate learn why you have to keep training, put in the effort and time, to get good at the craft. The ones who were allowed to quit because they didn’t want to put in the work have all been down the same path…they just get by as adults instead of excelling at anything they do. There have been kids who, no matter how hard they work, struggled to get good at Karate. They would compete and lose, get upset, think they stunk at it and some even always had an excuse as to why they couldn’t win. In my dojo none of that is accepted. We train, we improve and we move forward. My students know that I don’t accept defeatist attitudes in the dojo. If you worked hard and still lost then all you are missing is more time needed to keep working hard.

Many years ago I had a young student who loved Karate. He wasn’t talented for it at all and struggled with everything. He would go to tournaments and lose all the time. Finally, after about two years, he said he wanted to quit. I sat him down and said “NOPE. You are here to learn Karate and that means you have to take the good and the bad, learn from them, work harder and move forward”. About a year later he finally placed in a tournament. Granted it was 3rd place in Kata but he was amazed that his hard work paid off. Soon after his confidence, which had always been a struggle for him, began to increase and he began winning at every event, always placing in the top three. A year later he earned 1st place in every event he went to and eventually went on to become a National Karate Champion. After he earned his black belt I asked him what was the one thing you learned in the dojo that you feel is the most important. He said there were too many to list but one thing he learned is that “If you want to be successful at something you can’t expect it to come overnight”. That is a statement I still cherish to this day because he learned one of the most important lessons in life through his training.

Even I wasn’t a great competitor when I was younger. I competed for 5 years before ever placing in a tournament. I was always frustrated, upset and there were many times I just wanted to quit going to tournaments. My own teacher wouldn’t allow that attitude because he said “How will you earn a black belt if you can’t even handle set backs and struggles in your training”. When I was a green belt we went to a tournament in Dayton, Ohio. I had been working on my form and sparring hard, never missing a class and training at home every single day for six months to get ready for this event. The tournament was huge and my group had at least 25 kids in it. Immediately I felt like “Oh well, here we go again. I’m not going to place.”. My teacher saw this look on my face and he pulled me off to the side and told me “You work just as hard, if not harder than those other kids. You are just as good, if not better than those other kids. Don’t defeat yourself before it even begins. Now get out there and show them your hard work.”. To this day I have never forgotten those words and I often repeat them to my students who I see struggling in their training. Oh, that was also the first time I ever placed in a tournament winning a 2nd in forms and 3rd in sparring. From that day forward I always placed in tournaments…unless I got disqualified (which is a whole different story LOL).

Participation awards are great for things that are NOT a competition. If a child or teen is participating in something that is a competition and they lose they should not get an award. Why? Because there is a huge value in learning from losing. Going home empty handed should be a lesson to the person that they must work harder, try harder and not quit. Giving them an award for just trying / showing up is setting them up to fail in life because nothing is like that as they grow into adulthood. Success is not going to happen just because a person shows up. They have to work, they have to goal plan, they have to improve and get better to achieve it.

The only thing I have ever seen come out of participation awards has been a sense of entitlement which is prevalent in our society today. No one owes anyone a dog gone thing period. You want something? Get off your butt, work hard and go earn it. You feel you deserve something? Sorry but only those who understand the value of hard work, effort and discipline achieve it. This political correctness attitude of giving every child an award doesn’t belong in the martial arts…and it doesn’t belong in life period. I would rather see a student work hard, fail, fall down and get back up, learn from their mistakes, work harder, improve, never quit and then become successful than just give them a belt, a medal, a trophy…or whatever, for showing up. At least, in the end, I know that my students who can grasp this concept will understand what it will take to be successful…and that, my friends, is MARTIAL ARTS.

Steven Franz, Shihan
Shorin Ryu Shorinkan
Franz Karate

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