Shouts From The Stands: A World Without Ribbons

by SwimSwam 14

June 24th, 2024 Lifestyle, News, Opinion

SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please send them to [email protected].

This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from John Lupton, a longtime year-round and summer league coach in South Carolina.

After our neighborhood team’s last summer league swim meet, my son Scotty now has a lone blue ribbon stashed in the top right drawer of his desk. In other drawers, possessions like a dinosaur headlamp, a kaleidoscope, and loose batteries all live among each other. The ribbon lives alone. Rent is no object for the ribbon, not in Scotty’s desk drawer, or in his head.

As a kid I tacked all my ribbons up to a bulletin board in my room. By the time I was 9 or 10, it was covered in blue with bits of red here and there. It hung behind the door, which generally stayed open and hid the display, but every now and then, I’d swing the door shut and take a peek at my record, feeling that the blues defined me and that the reds were somehow mistakes.

As a year-round coach, I loathed ribbons. After spending 30-plus hours on the pool deck over the course of a weekend, I’d wait around for an envelope full of colored garbage that I’d have to sort and distribute once I got back home. Sometimes, I’d conveniently forget. I wanted kids to value their effort, to believe in the importance of consistency and practice habits, to respect each other. To me, these lessons were the food for the soul that made the sport worthwhile, and dangling ribbons in front of the kids was like giving them ice cream before dinner.

Now, as a parent, I’m happy to see my kids smile when they walk away from a race with a blue ribbon in their hands. Watching from the volunteer tent as Scotty turns on the jets in the second half of his 25 free, near the bottom of my first beer, I slap my heat sheet against an open palm and cheer so the parents around me can hear: “Get that ribbon, son!” It’s a joke and an admission, an acknowledgement that yes, I want my kid to get a ribbon too. Only because that’s the world we live in, though, a world with ribbons.

Scotty was miffed after the first meet when he didn’t win one. He swam his race like he was supposed to. He did what the coaches asked. Everything was good. He was part of the team, which was all he’d wanted for the last two years. Then, the next day at practice, coaches started handing out ribbons, and he didn’t get one. Suddenly, his first meet went from a success to a failure.

Meanwhile, his older brother racked up. Turns out Cartter’s kind of fast at backstroke. He keeps winning and getting put in relays, which means more ribbons. He clips them in neat, color-coded rows to a board hanging on his wall. It is not hidden behind the door. Prominent position and geometric display aside, though, looking at it is not all that different from looking at the board in my old room. It primes my dopamine response system, and I want to cover it in blue. Blue ribbons are the Facebook likes of swimming, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether I earn them, or my kid does – I want them, lots of them. The realization should sicken me more than it actually does.

“We know you don’t like ribbons,” my fellow volunteer dad tells me with a roll of his eyes, “But the kids like them.” Yes, and smack addicts like heroin. Because one time somebody gave them some, and now, there’s no joy in life without it.

Yes, the ribbons lit a fire under Scotty. He dropped an absurd 16 seconds in the 25 free between his first and second meets, but what does that matter? He’s six years old. Two weeks ago, he was happy just being part of the team and learning how to swim and compete. Now, success is measured by whether or not he gets a ribbon.

I’m not saying I want to do away with the competitive aspect of the sport. Far from it. I say embrace the competition. Focus on it. Score the meets. Announce the winners. When a kid puts forth great effort, celebrate it. Just don’t attach a ribbon to it, because it cheapens the special joy that sports offer. How about a smile? A high five? A kind word? Imagine if we took all the time we spend handling ribbons and applied it towards teaching kids to be gracious to their opponents. Imagine a world where a six-year-old isn’t tempted to judge his efforts based on a flimsy piece of dyed plastic that he tucks away in his desk drawer. Would it really be any less fun? Would it not be better?


John is a longtime year-round and summer league coach and a former age group coach of the year in his home state of South Carolina. He’s also a summer league swim dad. Despite his outward behavior as a parent, deep down he knows that kids deserve better than ribbons.

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15 days ago

Keep the ribbons – but add other accolades. Have a PB Board the kids can sign & date in summer if they have a personal best at the meet. Have popsicles for those with perfect attendance or who mastered/legally swam a new stroke. Find small celebrations. Everyone doesn’t get a trophy because that’s not life. But you can personalize small goals especially with the 10U kids.

15 days ago

Anyone who thinks only kids like ribbons in swimming has clearly never been to a championship masters meet.

Luis Vargas
21 days ago

Ultimately the kids need to enjoy swimming on its own for them to stick with it. Its a series of accomplishments starting with ribbons, then medals, then cuts, then high school state, juniors, college, conference team etc. If they do not enjoy swimming they will quit along the way. USA Swimming is very successful and one piece of this is the ribbons.

21 days ago

Sounds to me like you are creating a narrative against ribbons only because you don’t like dealing with them. Generally, kids love ribbons, or any type of confirmation of achievement.

John Bradley
21 days ago

I always enjoy it when adults think that a kid winning a ribbon is like a heroin addict getting a fix. Genius thinking there and frankly a comment that shows very little understanding and compassion for people struggling with addiction in general. Be better.

We have an enormous problem with kids not feeling like they’ve achieved something in our sport. It’s up to us to put those achievements in perspective. The idea that somehow a kid needs to act like an adult at age six and be more respectful and a better winner and less materialistic is a good one, but it’s up to parents and coaches to teach those skills. For a lot of kids winning a ribbon is… Read more »

Reply to  John Bradley
21 days ago

Comparing children earning ribbons to heroin addicts getting a fix also demonstrates very little understanding of human development. I’m always astonished by adults who tell on themselves and their own psyche by comparing the ribbons that motivated them in early elementary school to heroin and substance addiction.

22 days ago

Should we also do away with report cards too at a young age? And just give a high 5 or a smile ? Doing everything the coach /teacher says and not getting an award is no reason to think the system is failed. Sounds to me the parent needs to explain what and how sports work. And if the coach does not praise a young athlete for their efforts regardless of getting a ribbon or not that is a concern towards the coach.

Reply to  PAN
21 days ago

Best school I sent my kid to did NOT give grades…

22 days ago

Thought provoking article. Thank you. I am also a summer league coach and swim dad to a 5 year old. You touch on broader societal trend toward bribing our kids for desirable behavior. We use the TV or a treat to get them to clear their dinner plate or clean their room. It makes them move that desirable direction to be sure, but is it a sustainable form of motivation? Addiction and dependence on extrinsic motivators sets in almost immediately. The bottom line is most kids want to win races of any kind when they are introduced to the concept. They don’t need the ribbons at 4 or 5 ( or whenever they start racing) in order to race their… Read more »

Reply to  Miws
22 days ago

To be honest, a lot of the influence comes from what the parent chooses to reinforce. The parent has to do the hard work, every day.

Viking Steve
Reply to  SwimFL
22 days ago


You can’t depend on society nor blame society for your kid’s development.

Parents have to instill priorities, perspective, and perseverance through hard consistent work with their kids.

No outsourcing responsibility.

Last edited 22 days ago by Viking Steve
Reply to  SwimFL
21 days ago

Agree with you on that point!

That said, winning a ribbon is an achievement. It’s earned. A child has to prepare to compete by attending practice and mastering skills. Then they perform in meets, representing their team. They cheer for their friends and celebrate close races and points scored for their team. Winning ribbons is part of the fun, while also recognizing excellence. A child’s coach and their parents must, along the way, teach them to respect others and at all times exhibit good sportsmanship.

A great summer swim league experience leads to club swimming; and then, for some, on to high school and college team experiences.
A select few will eventually represent the USA at the Olympic… Read more »

cynthia curran
Reply to  Tigerswim22
21 days ago

Well, I knew I was a breastsroker won a won a heat ribbon at 12 years old in a novice meet.

John Lupton
Reply to  Miws
22 days ago

Thanks for reading and for the thoughtful comment. Good to hear from someone who understands the process of developing competitive athletes. It’s easy to get little kids motivated to swim for ribbons, but once we do that, it creates a value system that is hard to break. As you noted, kids already want to win. If we never introduced ribbons, it wouldn’t affect that, and ribbons divert their attention away from concepts like being part of a team and sportsmanship. After 15 years of coaching, I think I can say with some authority that we overvalue early success and awards and undervalue development and sportsmanship, which is sad.