A Sticker and a Juice Box

It seems to me that many folks believe that regardless of the result or the level (or lack) of contribution, everyone’s a winner. For want of a better name, I call this the sticker-and-a-juice-box phenomena. Here’s why.

Jim is a business partner of mine and one of the most committed individuals I’ve ever met. Anyway, several years ago Jim agreed to be the defensive coach for his son’s pee-wee football team, the Panthers.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in August, the Panthers played the defending pee-wee champs. From the first possession on, the Panthers trailed a bigger, faster opponent. Then late in the fourth quarter, the Panthers’ scored to take the lead. With only minutes left, the Panthers were poised to beat the defending champs.

Jim huddled his defense together and began the “coach speech.” They had practiced hard all week. They knew their assignments. All they needed to do was get out there and play hard for one more series — just two more minutes.

But in the heat of a Georgia August, the last two minutes are about neither skill nor training. They are about drive and passion. In the words of my daughter’s soccer coach, “You’ve got to want it.” And that’s when Jim noticed that one of his players, Carson, was still sitting quietly on the bench.

OK, time out here for just a second, lest you think I’ve lost all perspective. Yes, it is just pee-wee football. Yes, the players are only twelve-year-olds. No, in the grand scheme of things, even in the small scheme of the day, the outcome of the game is not important. The score should not weigh on anyone: loser, winner, parent, player or coach. In fact, I won’t relay any details about the rest of the game — not even the final score because as I said, the outcome of the game is not important. OK, so back to my story.

Jim calls to Carson to huddle up. Carson doesn’t move, he just looks at his feet.

Jim trots over and says, “let’s go son, your team needs you.”

Carson just shakes his head.

“What’s wrong? Are you hurt?” Jim queries with some concern.

“No coach. I’m OK,” Carson finally answers.

“OK then. Let’s go.”

But Carson doesn’t move. Instead, he says softly, “It’s hot coach. I’m tired and I don’t want to play anymore.”

“You don’t want to play? Why not? We really need you,” says Jim.

But Carson replies, “Coach, the team doesn’t need me to play.”

“Sure we do,” Jim replies. “You play a key position in our defense. Without you, I’m not sure we can stop them from scoring. See, we really do need you.”

Carson looks up from the imaginary spot between his feet and answers with a question of his own. “What happens at the end of the game if we win?”

“You know what happens, Carson,” answers Jim. “The same as we’ve done all season. We’ll shake hands with the other team. Afterward, the boosters (moms) will have a snack and a drink for you. And everyone on the team gets a sticker for their helmet.”

“OK,” says Carson. “But what happens if we loose?”

“We’ll shake hands with the other team. Afterward, the boosters (moms) will have a snack and a drink. And everyone on the team will get a sticker for their helmet,” answers Jim.

“So, either way, we all get a sticker for our helmet and a juice box, right coach?”

“Yes,” Jim answers.

“See coach,” says Carson. “It’ll be OK. The team doesn’t need me to play because the score doesn’t matter. We get the same either way.”

And that’s what terrifies me. We have de-emphasized the results so much that our children cannot even comprehend winning and losing? Everyone wins every time. The reward is no longer connected to the result.

We live in a competitive world. I can assure you that the workforce of other nations plays to win — and for keeps. When contracts go overseas, jobs go overseas. When the factory closes, the jobs are gone and they do not come back. At the end day, we can (and should) congratulate our competitors for their successes. But I’ve got some really, really bad news. There’s no sticker for your hard hat. No juice box will be brought to your cube. And in the global economy, there’s no consolation prize for being second best.

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