In Defense Of Participation Awards In BJJ

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Participation awards have a bad rap in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, as they do in our culture in general. Critics claim that they discourage competitors from putting in the effort to win. “Why should they?” these critics argue. “They’re going to get a trophy whether they win or lose.” 

Furthermore, these critics claim participation awards undermine the meritocratic culture of competitions. A person isn’t supposed to have a trophy handed to her simply for showing up, so goes the logic; they’re supposed to earn it through their skill and hard work.   

But is there really anything wrong with participation trophies at BJJ competitions? Do they discourage winning and undermine the merit-based culture of sports?

No, and here are two reasons why.   

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Competitors will still want to win.

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There is absolutely no evidence that giving all competitors, even the losers, a material benefit will discourage them from wanting to win. Take boxing as an example — Some professional boxers make millions of dollars even if they lose, but that doesn’t discourage them from winning. Floyd Mayweather could have made more money from losing than virtually the entire UFC roster can make from winning. Did that ever discourage him from putting in the effort to win? Obviously not, considering he retired 50-0. 

So why would giving a BJJ competitor a material benefit — in this case, a little plastic participation trophy —  discourage them from wanting to win?

It wouldn’t, because there is so much more to winning than material benefits. Glory. The knowledge that months or training paid off. These are rewards that will continue to drive competitors to win even if they can get a trophy for losing. No BJJ competitor competes entirely for the material benefits. If they did, they’d be better off spending their Saturdays studying for a lucrative career in a STEM field. That’s where the material benefits are.

But let’s say for a second that BJJ competitors do compete solely for the material rewards. Even then, participation awards would be nothing to get bent out of shape over. Winners, after all, will still get the bigger and better prizes: gold medals; bigger trophies; and in some cases, bigger cash rewards.

Participation awards are earned. 

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No BJJ competitor simply “shows up” to a competition. Every single person competing at a jiu-jitsu event has spent months, years, or even decades honing their skills for their chosen competition. If they are anything like the competitors in the schools I have attended, they trained extra hard in the weeks leading up to the event. 

It’s not only the weeks leading up to the event, either. Competing is a challenge that training in class doesn’t quite prepare you for. Many competitors, especially new ones, are incredibly nervous before a match. They’ve been training for months, and they worry that one mistake could cost them the match and make all of that training go to waste.

The match itself is also incredibly tough. Unlike rolling at your gym, BJJ competitors usually go 100 percent during their matches. They’re fighting to win, and they’re not usually concerned with their opponent’s safety, especially considering their opponent isn’t a teammate and may even be from a rival school.

Participation trophies are a recognition of the effort that goes into competing. They are a pat on the back for the people who not only worked up the courage to train BJJ in the first place, but who put their skills to the test in BJJ’s toughest challenge — the competition. Many of these competitors have jobs, families, and other commitments. Still, they put them on hold so they could compete.

Call me crazy, but I think that deserves an award. 

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