These days, every kid gets a trophy.
A lot of people don’t like that.
And I understand. Trophies are about performance. They are meant to honor hierarchy, to differentiate winners from losers. And they’re supposed to prepare our kids for a dog-eat-dog world, where simply showing up isn’t the same as working your way up. Like I said, I get it.
So, why do we keep doing it?
In Loveable, I tell this story:
…when the other team scored against us, I sprinted for midfield. I was waiting for my team when they arrived, and gave high-fives all around, as if we had scored the goal. Because when a bunch of six-year-olds fail and then look to you, they’re never wondering how they did; they’re always wondering who they are. They’re not wondering who gets the biggest trophy; they’re wondering who gets the biggest hug.
Trophies are like golden hugs.
They are golden hugs from a generation of parents who are becoming aware—for the first time in human history—of the shame they experienced in childhood. Golden hugs from a generation of parents who want their kids to know their value cannot be quantified by a scoreboard—that losing doesn’t make you a loser—and that love is a birthright, not a reward system.
That is its own kind of victory.
Our kids need to know their beauty cannot be altered, regardless of how ugly the final score is.
But maybe trophies—those instruments of differentiation—aren’t the best tool for doing so. Instead, rather than giving every kid on my soccer team a trophy, they each get a different kind of award.
Or, rather, an “aword.”
The first season I gave awords, I spent some time contemplating each of the kids, and then I picked a word to describe their truest, worthiest self. Words like “fierce” and “joyful” and “persistent” and “gentle.” After the final game, one by one, I began telling each kid their word. Suddenly, they were no longer distracted by juice boxes. The words seemed to be quenching a very different kind of thirst.
Afterward, my wife told me I should write the words down the next time.
So, the following season, I wrote the words on slips of paper and gave them to the players. As I handed out the words, the same hush came over them. For a moment, juice boxes forgotten.
Afterward, my wife told me some of the words were too complicated for young children to understand. She said I should also explain the word when I give it to them.
So, the following season, I gave each player their word, defined it, told them how I saw the word reflected in them, and then I gave them a benediction, encouraging them to apply that beautiful part of themselves to the rest of their life. Again, they were hushed. Quenched.
Afterward, my wife reminded me about the limitations of auditory memory and told me I should write down the description of the word as well.
So, the following season, I gave each kid a slip of paper, with their word and description. Hushed and quenched.
Afterward, my wife told me, “Well done.”
But then this season, my co-coach took the awords to a whole new level. We called them “paper plate awords,” and each child received a paper plate with their name and word on the front, and the description of their word on the back. During the regular season, we were the worst team in the league. We didn’t win a single game. No one got trophies.
But every kid got their word.
Competition is important. It teaches us teamwork and cooperation and it encourages the pursuit of excellence. But affirmation is important too. Just as important. Because it is a reminder that what is already inside of us is already excellent. And the real goal of life is not to kick a ball into a net.
The real goal of life is simply to turn ourselves inside out, until the beauty already alive on the inside of us becomes the beauty we are living on the outside of us.
Until, for instance, the fierceness with which we defend the goal becomes the fierceness with which we defend the downtrodden. Until the joyfulness with which we kick a corner kick becomes the joy we shine into the darkest corners of this broken world. Until the persistence with which we practice throw-ins becomes the persistence with which we practice our passion. Until the gentleness with which we listen to a coach, becomes the gentleness with which we listen to a child.
Perhaps today, after a lifetime of chasing trophies for your performance—or awarding yourself trophies regardless of your performance—it’s time to get still, instead. Maybe it’s time to pay close attention to who you are at the beautiful, worthy, timeless center of you. Maybe it’s time to award yourself an aword. And if you can’t come up with one right away, I’ve got one you can have until you do:
You are loveable.
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