This week, one of my twins trounced the other in skating lessons, coming home with two stick-on badges while his sister got only one. She dissolved into tears. He pranced in excitement. I cringed.
Is this what sport has wrought? A 4-year-old is convinced she doesn't measure up. As an Olympian mom, I found myself in this situation hastily praising both effort and performance. Ugh!
My knee-jerk reaction didn't feel right because, ultimately in sport and life, motivation has to come from within. End of story. It's a hard lesson to learn, however, because external recognition and rewards -- from badges and report cards to Olympic medals -- are powerful motivators. Schools, coaches and parents know this and we shamelessly exploit it, too, so our charges will achieve, conform, speak French, whatever.
But sometimes, the bravest fights don't net you any hardware and that is why I was so happy to see artistic gymnast Kyle Shewfelt win the Spirit of Sport story of the year honours at the 2008 Canadian Sport Awards this week.
Shewfelt, you may recall, won Olympic gold in Athens in 2004 and was in the best shape of his life at the 2007 worlds when he broke both of his legs in training, just 11 months before Beijing. He'd been hoping to arrive at the Games as world champion. Instead, it was his challenge of a lifetime just to get there.
"My knees both hyper-extended back and instantly I knew something was very wrong," Shewfelt recalled. "I needed to fight with everything I had in myself. And in Beijing, just competing was a transcendent moment for me."
The transcendence didn't last, though, as Shewfelt then faced the reality of returning home to Calgary without a medal -- a stark contrast to his homecoming four years earlier as Olympic champion. There have been fewer perks, invitations to galas, speaking gigs and so on. The only hardware Shewfelt had were the screws and plates holding his shins together.
So he seemed genuinely grateful this week that his arduous and painful comeback got some recognition. What Shewfelt accomplished last year, physically and mentally, is more difficult than most of us can imagine. And no doubt, motivation had to come from within.
"To receive this award is an achievement I will never forget," Shewfelt said. "I believe this award demonstrates that the term 'champion' is not just reserved for those who win gold medals, but for those who exemplify a true spirit of sport and values including dedication, perseverance, sportsmanship, respect for others, and a genuine love of sport."
The awards ceremony, held at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, was small and modest compared to the glamorous galas of years past in Toronto that used to dazzle the crowd with flashy video clips of each nominee.
This evening had no video, but an earnest quality to it that seemed kind of appropriate when you consider both the ailing economy and what sport can, at its best, teach us: The pure honour to be earned in giving your all.
Kudos of course to the other winners, too: Top female athlete, Paralympian Chantal Petitclerc and top male athlete, equestrian Eric Lamaze. The world champion men's curling was team of the year; Olympic champion men's eights were partners of the year; and junior world skeleton champion Sarah Reid was junior athlete of the year. Special Olympics swim coach Alain Maille won for volunteer achievement and Jane Roos, of the Canadian Athletes Now Fund won for leadership. The corporate excellence award went to Mitsubishi Motor Sales of Canada Inc.
As for my kids and those skating badges, we'll keep at it. They'll learn. But my bigger wish is that they grow up to possess even a shred of Shewfelt's courage.
Already, they grasp the perceived value of stickers, certificates and badges. But to understand the value of effort, belief and drive, that's a different lesson. One that matters a whole lot more.