The Virtues Of Intrinsic Rewards

AJWs TaproomEarlier this week I came across an interesting article suggesting that the prevalence of participation trophies in youth sports was creating a generation of soft kids. As an educator, father, and athlete, I felt myself agreeing with the article and decided to post it to my personal Facebook page as I occasionally do with such articles.

I must admit, I was surprised by the volume of responses that ensued and the subsequent liveliness of the debate over the article’s premise. In particular, I found it interesting that several of the commenters linked youth-sports participation trophies with ultramarathon finishers awards such as medals and belt buckles. Several people suggested that by the logic of the article, it would be more fitting to only give medals or buckles to the winners of ultras. In response, others suggested that finishing a recreational-league soccer season was far different, and much less significant than, say, finishing the Western States 100.

What occurred to me as I reflected further on the article and the discussion is the importance of intrinsic rewards to those of us who run. While there is certainly satisfaction in achieving extrinsic goals such as winning, running a personal-best time, or simply finishing an ultra, in my two decades in the sport I have seen many, if not most, of my running peers far more motivated by the intrinsic satisfaction brought on by a successful run.

These days, process is often relegated to soft metric status as we focus increasingly on measurable outcomes and ever-evolving productivity. The deep satisfaction of simply doing what we love, whether we ultimately succeed or fail in any external way, can, for those of us who toil for hours on the trail, be all that we need to feel rewarded.

I understand the angst that goes along with the trophies-for-everyone debate. And, trust me, I experience it firsthand as an educator and a father. Take two of my sons; 15-year old Logan and 12-year old Tully. Just this past week, each of them participated in intense athletic competition. Both had satisfying experiences that were intrinsically fulfilling but only Tully came away with a trophy as he was one of four out of 80, yes four out of 80, who was singled out as a “promising prospect” at his basketball camp. Logan, on the other hand, finished 10th out of 75 in the general classification at the Tour of the Catskills cycling race and received a pat on the back by the race director.

The point of these personal stories is not to highlight my own kids, although I am proud of both of them, but rather to highlight the importance of the culture in which they have grown up. Having attended ultras since birth, they both know that there are winners and losers and people who succeed and people who fail. They also know more than that, that the process matters far more than the product. In our ultra world, where we spend days, weeks, and months preparing for one day of intense, all-consuming effort, that process is far more important than any buckle or medal ever will be. I hope it stays that way.

Bottoms up!

 AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Devils Backbone Brewery in Nellysford, Virginia. Their Gold Leaf Lager is quite possibly the perfect summer-day beer. Brewed in the classic German Lager style, Gold Leaf is slightly sweet and savory with just the right amount of barley to make the two sensations.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What do you think about participation awards for youth, adults, and ultrarunners?
  • Where does your motivation come from in life? In running?

There are 5 comments

  1. Cody L Custis

    You hit the point. Most of the population would do fine in a season for recreation soccer. After playing for a summer, I even got decent at it. Few of the population can finish the Western States. The buckle isn’t because those runners are so much better than the other runners, the buckle is because those runners are so much better than the other part of the population, the part that never dreamed to approach the starting line, developed the fitness to quality, and the skill and wisdom to get across the finish line.

  2. ClownRunner

    Have you seen kids' recreational soccer seasons lately? Those little dudes and dudettes deserve some serious bling for the stress they endure (mostly from parents on the sidelines!)

  3. @jerememonteau

    In her post Hardrock win interviews Anna Frost mentioned multiple times that just getting to the starting line of a big race is her top priority and that both the effort and outright good fortune involved in getting there should not be discounted or taken for granted. I was impressed and inspired by this attitude. I also think this could be applied to any athletic endeavour really. To show up to practice on weekly our daily basis, or put in the time on your own, in any context, is something that many of us are privileged enough to take for granted, myself included. So, I like to think of trophies, ribbons, medals, etc.. not necessarily as ways to distinguish winners from losers, but as tokens to recognize the effort that goes into any kind of performance in any arena, whether the end result is victory or failure.

  4. @beerback

    Perhaps adults and more mature adolescents, regardless of how they're reared (ultras since birth), can appreciate process more than young kids can? Buckle or not as a carrot, my friends and I will be out there this week taking in our local trails, catching up, commiserating, pushing each other, sometimes until we puke or pass out.

  5. senelly

    As Ronnie Reagan said, "There you go again"… posting another fine piece that is irresistible. I do have better things to do than read more iRF gems… but here is another one. Oh well. Self-motivation is definitely, very often lost in the shower of performance trinketry. I coached kids to find their reward in doing the best they could at that time, in sickness or in health, for better or worse, etc. Most of them eschewed the hardware. I recommended they send medals and trophies to their rivals… to weaken them. Good one AJW!

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