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Participation Ribbons, Upgraded

Participation Ribbons Lessons Teach Kids

Each season, the final email I would send to my Life Time runners with their training logs would be the one below. It's funny to look back and re-read these now, my view is totally unchanged!

"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 AT CHURCH 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 in combat boots at midnight 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, crazy travel for work, and sometimes life just grabs you by the face and WON"T LET GO.  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.  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.  And it kicks your wall of race 'bling' (I HATE THAT WORD) to the moon and back.

No one picks up a new hobby over the age of 25 because they are happy.  I am incredibly impressed with people of all ages who wake up and decide to take up running for any reason at all, and in my time as a coach I have come to accept that those reasons rarely spring from bright and shiny corners of the mind and soul.   Because really, you'd have to be crazy in order to wake up one day and decide to wrap your life (and free time) around a training plan and demand that your family follow suit.  Or buy a $400 watch with GPS functionality that tells you where you've been instead of where to go next.  That is just CRAZY.  Who does that??

YOU DID.****  It's been 12 weeks since you lost your mind and decided to indulge your crazy.  CONGRATULATIONS and YAY FOR GOOD DECISIONS!

And now it's over.  Race day is (almost) here!  RACEDAYRACEDAYRACEDAYRACEDAY!  This is why we train, for the electricity through our veins as race day approaches, for the bittersweet sadness we feel when our coach says, "this is the LAST TIME you'll ever do burpees for me this training cycle!", for the newfound appreciation for sleeping in on Saturday mornings, and for wondering who we were when we started this journey 16 long weeks ago and who we will be on October 16.  Is it crazier to keep running after race day or to stop?  Is it crazy to miss track night?  Is it crazy to hear me yelling LOCK YOUR CAGE every time you slump in your chair?  You'll have to answer that question for yourself.  I don't know if my desire to train comes from a happy place these days, but I know when I am not training I am about as far from a happy place as I can be.  I know I'm crazy and don't pretend to be anything less.  I intend to indulge that crazy until I can no longer stand.

No matter what happens on race day, you will still be able to pay your rent.  You won't have to explain your finish time to anyone.  You will still have your training buddies and your coach, and your future as a runner is entirely up to you.  I sincerely hope you continue to train with me and will send more information on how to do that after race day.  No one needs to know that you're crazy, that will be our little secret.  :-)

On race day, I expect you to be as proud of yourselves as I am of you.  Thank you so, so much for letting me be your coach.  


Coach Fleming

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