Why I Believe Participation Ribbons Produce Losers

We live in a culture that promotes reward without achievement. That is essentially what a participation ribbon is. It is the idea that we reward the ability to put on a pair of shorts and ride mom’s minivan to a game. It does not matter if you worked hard in practice, developed your talent, or even cared about the game. Just show up and the heavens applaud the fact that you were able to stop playing video games for an hour or two.

On the other side of the coin we have coaches of 10-year-olds who live vicariously through the kids. It really is not about the children at all. It is about them and their ego. We have all witnessed a way-too-serious coach that promotes a win-at-all-costs approach to the game. It is like “sweep the leg” in The Karate Kid. That mentality does not produce character either.

I believe that competitiveness is a good thing that promotes character, achievement and good self-esteem. No doubt competitiveness can become a problem if it is allowed to go unchecked. It can turn into sinful pride that harms relationships and our own emotional and spiritual health. But here is why I believe competitiveness is good:

1.     Competitiveness originated in worship.

God created man in his own image and put him in the Garden of Eden with the primary purpose of worship. God created mankind to love and worship him in his activities as well as with his emotions. Part of that worship was to be his work. The desire to win, compete, accomplish, and achieve reveals the beauty of the way God created man. The drive to invent, improve and make things better is rooted in this innate, God-given desire to worship God and make things better. It is an image of God thing. God is creative and so are we. Without this creative drive – competitive spirit – we deny an essential part of who God created us to be.

2.     Competitiveness drives us to fulfill God’s commands.

God told Adam to work, to rule over the earth, to have sex, to reproduce, to eat freely and enjoy life. Work is not a part of the curse. It is a part of God’s original design. Without a competitive drive we will sit back and do nothing. We will wait on the world to hand us things when God designed us to go out and earn them and work for them. I realize that God’s grace is unearned, undeserved, and unmerited. I believe that God’s grace applies not only to salvation but also to all parts of our lives including work and achievement. However a true understanding of grace does not mean you sit back and become a vegetable while you wait on God to bring food to the table. Grace frees you to live in the sweet spot of creativity, desire, and worship.

3.     Competitiveness is rooted in the love and character of God.

I do not need to deny or suppress the desire to achieve. I truly believe that is an image of God thing that is rooted in the love and character of God. God loves us so much that he put a desire to win and achieve in us so that we can reflect his character and bring glory to him. We must guard against pride and insecurity because they can destroy relationships and eat away at the fulfilling of our God-given purpose.

The Weakness Of The “Participation Ribbon Mentality”

  • Participation Ribbons suppress the drive to achieve.

When everyone wins no matter how much or how little they work it weakens the desire to accomplish and achieve. That affects us in a dramatic way. It makes you a victim rather than a true worshipper of Jesus.

  • Participation Ribbons lower self-esteem.

I believe that self-esteem is mainly rooted in accomplishment. To be sure, our words matter. We certainly can build up or tear down with our words. But no number of positive words can replace doing something that you are actually good at doing. Watch American Idol if you doubt what I am saying. Just because mama likes your singing does not mean you are good at it.

  • Participation Ribbons weaken the desire to serve others.

I think this is where the most damage is done. God created us to serve others. We make a difference when we serve. Recent studies show a remarkable effect on our bodies and health when we serve others. Altruistic pursuits have a completely different effect on a cellular level than hedonistic pursuits. I believe that the mentality that is fostered by giving out participation ribbons leads people to become selfish and self-centered. It takes away from the calling God has placed on us to serve others.

See love and service as the win.

Competitiveness can drive us to create and achieve. I reject the “Participation Ribbon” mentality because we are made in God’s image. The true win is to go from competitiveness to service. Going from competiveness to service is never easy. It requires humility. It means that we have to acknowledge our own insecurity and pride. It requires that I confess my sin. It means that my “win at all costs” mentality must be confronted. It means that I need to understand the difference between a God-honoring drive to succeed, invent, create, or beautify and the destructive promotion of self. It means that I go back to the fundamental calling in my life – serving others.