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  • Writer's picturecoachmk

Participation Ribbons and Bling

"Hey MK, you're a coach!  What do you think about participation ribbons? They are terrible for kids, amirite??"

I hate this question.  It makes my blood boil. It highlights the different standards we use for our own behavior, i.e, "what our kids see us do", and what we expect them to do.  I managed to respond to this question yesterday without cursing (YAY PROGRESS!) and wanted to use that question to shape my final training email to you this cycle.  

It's not unusual for parents to want their kids to try all kinds of random things as they learn about the world and understand their own talents.  For many kids, this means joining a sports team for at least a season.  The big lesson here tends to be, "watching baseball is fun, but playing baseball is WORK."  The other lesson we want them to learn is that joining a team is tantamount to making a commitment, and we ride commitments out no matter what.  At the end of the season, I have no problem whatsoever to giving everyone a participation ribbon.  That ribbon says, "you tried.  You rode it out.  You persevered.  You showed up every week to sit on the bench, you took the criticism in every practice, and you didn't quit even though you hated it and your performance was lackluster, you rode out your commitment and for that, the whole team acknowledges your hard work by thanking you for being a part of it."  Yet parents seem to think that only the good players should be acknowledged, that being part of the team is enough and a participation ribbon isn't earned because participation is its own reward and by the way it's not ABOUT the ribbons or the trophies.  It's about practice, discipline, and being part of a team.

I wonder how many of those parents who rant and rave about those horrid participation ribbons on their kids' bedroom walls while proudly showing off the 'race bling' they've accumulated over the years, running races they haven't once trained for.  I wonder what they would say if I took each one away, saying, "you didn't earn this one...or this one...or this one." I wonder how many times they signed up for a 10k instead of a 5k because the 5k finishers don't get a medal.  By the way, races are not about the medal.  It's about practice, discipline, and for many it's about being part of a training team.  Participation is its own reward.

A statistic widely shared amongst run coaches is that for any given race regardless of distance, 80% of the participants will have only done 20% of the training.  They show up on race day, convinced that they can 'wing' 13.1 because hey, it's 'only' a half.  They run a solid 5k then walk 10 miles, take their shirt and their medal and talk about their hard work.  That's like playing in the big game without once showing up to practice.  Great players practice.  All will tell you they are great precisely because they practice- 'natural talent' doesn't mean you can skip practices.  I've yet to meet a person who had natural talent enough to wing a marathon without getting hurt (you may meet Navy Seals who don't train for a specific event and do well, but COME ON their job requires them to be ready to run 4 hour clips at the drop of a hat).  Kara Goucher doesn't skip training runs, she knows it doesn't work that way.

That said, most of us aren't professional athletes with serious money riding on our performance.  We have families.  We have jobs.  Life often gets in the way and stays there, threatening the commitments we make. Exactly two people really truly deeply care about your race: you and your coach.  I LOVE this job because you guys inspire me every single week.  You are ANIMALS.  Some of you have trained around injuries (Gino, John, Stacy, Janelle, Abhi), crazy travel for work (Jayne, Meghan C., Renee, Reid B), and sometimes life just grabs you by the face and WON"T LET GO (Edda- I LOVE YOU EDDA!!!!!!!!!!).  Yet you stuck it out.  We are at the end of the season. Just one practice session left, then it's time to go reap the rewards.  You have earned that medal, I expect you to LOVE IT.

I treat my race medals the way I treat the participation ribbon the baseball team gave me 25 years ago when this socially awkward and shy overweight 6th grader decided to see if there was an athlete hiding inside her - with absolute, sheer, unabashed pride.  I earned that ribbon.  More humility and discipline and 'sucking it up' went into that baseball season in 1990 than any marathon I've ever run.  It hangs on my bedroom wall here, next to my race medal rack, to remind me that a commitment is work and how good it feels to practice with discipline and be part of a team, even if you are the weakest link on that team (rest assured, I WAS).  It was never about the ribbon, but the ribbon is a fantastic reminder of a fantastic life lesson.  I love it because I earned it. I hope you've learned something these past 16 weeks with me, too.

I am so very, very proud of each and every one of you and can't wait to hug you once you cross the finish line and join us in the Life Time tent!


Coach Fleming

PS Deets on the summer Fitness Protection session will be coming soon.  Please be patient and focus on Colfax!  In the meantime, if you are sure you wanna see me in the fall, sign up here!  Share with your friends!

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