I hear lots of folks complain about the “entitlement” mentality some people have; blaming our social ills on the fact that when we grew up, everyone got a trophy or ribbon for “participating” and “winning” wasn’t necessary in order for a competitor to get an award.

I’m one of those who’d never have won a ribbon or trophy for physical competitions were it not for the kindness of “participation” awards. Mom always said I could “trip over the flowers in a rug”. This was true. Still is. It’s not that I didn’t WANT to be great at basketball, or running, or the dreaded flexed-arm hang–I simply didn’t have the ability to excel at sports. Give me a cerebral task and I’m fine. Tell me I have to dribble a basketball and run, and I will fail. EVERY time.

Dressing out and going to PE was the most stressful part of any day. I knew I sucked, and I knew everyone else knew this, too. The long-legged lean gals who could easily run suicides till the cows came home were in their element. I was more like oil in water. I still feel the shame of it all. Who wants to pick the kid who never wins? The kid who, up until that year, was the “fat” one in the class?

I remember one day during PE my dear friend picked me to be her wheelbarrow race partner. I knew I was in trouble before I ever hit the start line. SHE was one of those coordinated athletic types. The only “coordinated” I was was when my gym shorts matched my t-shirt. Yet she chose me to be her partner. Did I mention how sweet she was/is? And I say that without malice–she really thought she could help me.

So when the time arose, she took first turn as the wheelbarrow–flying down the gym and back with me holding her ankles and her arms propelling her far faster than my legs could ever propel me. No big deal. Then came MY turn to be the wheelbarrow. I had no upper body strength. By the time we made it down the gym and back, me falling onto my face or stomach at least 25 times, the entire class AND the teacher were laughing until tears rolled down their faces. Everyone else had finished minutes earlier. I laughed, too. What else do you do when you are 14 years old and so embarrassed and mortified that you’d like to crawl into a hole and die? It was like asking the scholastically challenged kids to recite Shakespeare, or to participate in a spelling bee.

I loved cheerleading. I had been a cheerleader at Hominy Valley (the local “junior” sporting group) for several years, and was a cheerleader at my school in 7th grade. When time for 8th grade tryouts arrived, very few of the girls from the year before were participating, so the sponsor asked me to teach the “new girls” the cheers we’d done the year before. I did. We practiced twice a week, for several weeks, getting the routines down pat before tryouts.

The school asked cheerleaders from the high school to pick the girls who would be on the squad for the upcoming year–and I was not chosen. I was crushed. When asked later, the high school gals said it was because my thighs touched. (This was eons before “thigh gap” became a recognized “thing”.) I don’t know if that was the truth, or if I was simply not good enough. Either way, the one semi-athletic thing I’d felt strongly I could do turned out to be something else I could not. And, despite having cheered for five years while in elementary school, I didn’t try out for the football/basketball cheerleading squad at the high school. I went instead for the wrestling cheerleading squad–one which didn’t carry the “popularity” perks of the other, but which nonetheless was something I enjoyed and felt “safe” doing. We didn’t get asked to perform at pep rallies and such (those were for the other squad–even during wrestling season), but we did have fun. I cheered all four years–earning my letter jacket the second. I never wore it, though, because I felt in my heart I wasn’t really good enough to do so–I hadn’t earned it.

Thankfully, after my freshman PE requirement was met, I never again had to “dress out” for PE. Any sporting events in which I participated were voluntary. The load on my back and mind was lightened immeasurably and FINALLY it felt I had a chance at being noticed for my strengths instead of my weaknesses. The things I KNEW I was good at (writing, editing the school newspaper, the Drama team [we made it to the state competition], being part of the Health Occupations club) didn’t award letters.

The difference between most athletic competitions and those of a more cerebral nature is that cerebral competitions were fewer, and no one was FORCED to participate. I can remember three academic competitions our K-8 school held–Spelling Bee, Mental Math and then an essay competition sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution. THREE competitions in areas in which I had hope, versus 180 days per year of the humiliation of perpetual ineptitude which was PE and anything else athletic. I always placed in the “brain” contests. They tended to be far more low-key and had smaller audiences than the physical ones, though. And maybe it was my own perception, based upon my history, but they seemed not to matter nearly as much as the athletic contests which I was doomed to fail. (Although, looking back on it, the sweet gal who was my wheelbarrow partner also beat me in the Spelling Bee competition when I spelled “b-i-s-q-u-i-t”. She got it right. Maybe she WAS sneaky! No…not her. Never her.)

I wouldn’t ever win an award in sports. But it took far more courage for me to show up and participate than most kids could imagine. I was usually physically nauseous by the time PE class rolled around. I knew what was coming–agonizing moments of perpetual failing observed by other students and the teacher. It wasn’t playing, or fun–it was legislated emotional torture. I showed up, though. For five years in elementary school and another four in high school I participated in “athletic” activities. I garnered my will and wits, fought through butterflies and nausea, and gave it my best. I was not athlete material. My best would never win a race or a game. Were it not for those “participation” trophies earned simply for being there, I’d have nothing to show for the hardest part of those nine years of my life.

I hated failing. I still do. And I simply could not do any better. I knew those trophies I had were not signs of victories–they were tokens awarded to those who didn’t win. My name wouldn’t be engraved anywhere for future generations to come see and marvel at, because I wasn’t an athlete. Only now am I beginning to see that doesn’t make me a failure; that giving my best is what matters. Somehow I never got the message that my best was good enough.

Maybe I missed hearing it because of all the laughter.