The Birth of the Participation Trophy

It was a sign-up sheet, fairly 8.simple, just some names under the heading “volunteers needed.” Being a reasonably able young man, I figured I could help. So I added my name to the list, thinking I could flip some burgers at the league snack bar or something. Soccer was a mystery to me; I was looking forward to getting involved and maybe even learning something about the game while 8-year-old Brittany ran around in circles chasing a checkered ball.

They gave me a team. Head coach. Boys and girls, Under 10 Division.

All of my protests were in vain. It mattered not that I knew nothing about coaching, soccer, kids or how best to manage a herd of them. They needed coaches. The internet had yet to be invented in 1988, so I went to the library and checked out five books explaining the rules of the game, the history and even an autobiography of Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne.

Rockne, I was not. I showed up at the field at 0800 hours, as instructed, to pick my team. Hundreds of youngsters were there, with their little shin pads taped to their legs, and brand-new soccer shorts, T-shirts and cleats ready for a season of fun, maybe even a championship. Intermingled among the kids were eight adults, grown men with whistles on cords around their necks, clipboards in their hands full of — I kid you not — scouting reports. They had an intensity I had not seen since I watched Clint Eastwood play Dirty Harry.

The kids performed a series of tasks that had something to do with soccer, I think. They ran and kicked and stopped and shuffled as most of the adults took notes. I did not.

Instead, I was busy remembering my own miserable organized sporting experiences as a child. Baseball was awful; waiting in right field for the grass to grow while praying the ball would not be hit to me. Football tryouts scarred me for life; I did not know how to dress in the gear the league provided so one hand was busy holding up my pants while the other kids crushed me. Hockey was fun, as long as I was skating backward; I couldn’t quite grasp the forward motion. Basketball tryouts were a hoot; I was the tallest kid on the court but I couldn’t dribble.

When the moment of truth came and our subjects were lined up to be chosen I took my place with the other head coaches. We picked our players, one by one. They picked the fastest, biggest and most fearsome. I chose the kind, shy and sad-looking ones. Thus, the losingest team in the history of The Warwick Boys and Girls Club Soccer League was born.

I was fortunate to know the Bishop Hendricken High School soccer coaches, and listened when they advised me on how best to help the kids become sound players. Our practices were productive and kind of fun as we worked on the basics; kicking the ball properly, dribbling and the rules of the game.

Somehow, as the losses added up and it became abundantly clear that we might never score a goal, never mind win a game, the team grew close. The highlight of the season — for me, anyway — was the field trip we took to a real soccer game between Hendricken and Pilgrim high school. The kids got to goof around, make funny sounds, disappear under the bleachers and be kids, and I got to see that the fundamentals were more important than winning games.

It was a great season. The kids learned how to kick, play their positions and work as a team. Lifelong friendships were born. I was so impressed with the experience I bought 15 little trophies from Emblem and Badge and, long before anybody had heard of the term participation trophy, presented “Good Sports” awards to the kids at our season-ending pizza party.

If I am responsible for creating the Millennials, so be it. I wouldn’t change a thing.

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