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The Generation of Buried Talent

Ruining Athletes, One Ribbon at a Time

I heard something today that stopped me in my tracks. As those close to me may know, I run a basketball personal training business called First Seed Athletics. I was on my way out of a training session, proud of the great work my athlete had just accomplished. We had been focusing heavily on footwork going towards the rim, which takes some serious attention to detail. The next group in the facility was a soccer team, and they began by running sprints. One player’s mom dropped him off late to practice and waited with him while the boy put on his shoes. As she looked in the gym, I heard the woman tell her son something that is far too revealing of how our next generation is being raised. “Looks like they are running hard already, better slow down putting on your shoes.” WHAT!?

Let me recap the progression… #1 – Player is late. #2 – His team is working hard, running sprints. #3 – Parent tells son to slow down in order to avoid the running. WHAT!?

As a personal trainer, I see quite a good number of athletes, and they are all very different. However, one thing remains the same among the ones that return to train consistently—they have an insane work ethic. I love nothing more than watching a player dig within themselves, find every scrap of energy they can manage, and execute a drill flawlessly through pain and fatigue. These are the athletes who outdo even their own expectations. These are the ones who see their potential realized. These are the players that every coach wants to have, and opposing coaches cannot handle. One other commonality that is found in the majority of our best trainees is found in their parents. The best players in our program have parents that push them towards success. They keep updated on how their child is performing and acting, attend games and practices, and do not allow for a laundry list of excuses.

For every outstanding athlete who is driven for success and motivated by their parents, there are 500 players like I overheard today. The comment that this parent made is not a singular issue, rather it is indicative of a particularly North American problem. It is what I call “The Participation Problem.” In the hypersensitive, umbrella protected, candy-coated, excuse accepting, success depreciating, “Everyone wins!” society that we are currently living in, we teach the next generation that they do not have to work as hard as everyone else. After all, we give gifts to everyone at the party, not just the one who is celebrating a birthday. We created a “Consolation” Championship in minor sports to celebrate the winner of the losers. I did some deep research into the state of affairs in North America, diving into every possibility that could provide an explanation for the root of our problems. At the very epicenter of our current crisis I discovered participation ribbons, so neatly laid out and fresh, ready to carefully distribute to each individual who merely showed up to receive it. Shocked, I scoured the rows of ribbons to find the special one, awarded to the winner who worked their heart out and succeeded. To my dismay, I found no difference. The athlete who showed up late, tied their laces slowly in order to avoid hard work (after all, the child may get tired, or God forbid they might be sore the following day), and then wandered in on their own time just received the same award as the player that I mentioned. Remember, the one who focused steadily on his footwork and body placement, doing pushups when it wasn’t quite right?

Society has so removed itself from the concept of ‘hard work breeds success’ that we are now offended by it! The next generation has so much talent and productivity to offer our world that is never going to be fully seen or realized. We have an entire generation (save the select few who place winning AND losing on their own shoulders) that is being buried by “What if my child feels left out by not being given an award?” Is it too simplistic to maintain the belief that awards and prizes are earned and not given? We have stooped so low that some high school coaches are forced to either give each player the exact same amount of playing time, or they are relieved of their coaching duties. Again I say, WHAT!? We as a society complain about laziness in the hiring pool, slacking in the classroom, and dealing with unteachable and uncoachable kids. Where such lack of driven determination could come from simply confounds me. Surely, it must be a result of them being overworked and under-appreciated. The solution then, must be increased awards and decreased commitment.

On the contrary, I am a firm believer in the old-school. The former tradition of working hard for the things we have. The good news is that there is a real solution, although it may involve some hurt feelings and learning the hard way. Parenting has to be about what the next generation needs to succeed in the future, not what they want right now. Excuses need to be discarded, and participation ribbons locked away. Congratulations and praise can be heaped upon the winners, and encouragement to try again for the losers. Nobody is saying we ridicule and humiliate them, we simply do not give them prizes for losing. An entire generation has been raised that way, and we proceed to complain about the consequences of it later.

Allow me to end this by congratulating and thanking those amazing people and athletes that work hard for everything. They expect no hand-outs and work even harder after a defeat than before it. You are the ones who are uncovering the talent that this generation has to offer, and I thank you for being role models to your peers and all those around you.

“I learned the value of hard work by working hard.” – Margaret Mead

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