Not everyone deserves a trophy.

I’m terrible at a lot of things, but especially at baseball. I know this because my Little League coach told me so when I was eleven. I was, perhaps, a bit pudgy and uncoordinated for my age, so things like throwing and catching and running were embarrassingly problematic. Still, I showed up to every practice and every game, believing my coach would help me become a little less awful.

But he didn’t.

Instead, he focused his efforts on the better players and optimized the roster to maximize their impact on the team, and to minimize mine. On the rare occasions when I’d get to bat, he’d advise me not to swing, trusting I’d either be walked or beaned by errant pitches. Because I was pudgy and uncoordinated, I mostly got beaned. In fact, I don’t remember ever making it to first base without tears and an emerging bruise. “Just rub a little dirt on that and walk it off,” my coach would laugh from the dugout. “At least you didn’t strike out again.”

By the end of the season, I hated baseball. I also hated football and basketball and all of the other so-called “team” sports, and haven’t played any of them since. Any why would I? My coach’s actions and words from 35 years ago told me I was terrible. And I believed him.

That’s why I cringed when my eleven-year-old son decided to sign-up for a summer baseball league. He had never played before and was, perhaps, a bit undersized for his age, so competing against more veteran players would likely be problematic. He was persistent, though, so I grudgingly attended every practice and every game, fearing the coach would permanently mar my son’s self-confidence.

But he didn’t.

Instead, he fostered an environment of inclusion and optimized the roster to ensure everyone had equal playing time, win or lose. Not, I think, because he believed that every kid deserves a trophy, but because he believed that every kid deserves respect. He encouraged them to be bold and try new things. So my son played the outfield and second base and first base and pitcher. And every time he got up to bat, the coach would tell him to wait for a good pitch, then swing for the moon. And he did.

By the end of the season, my son loved baseball. He’s excited to play again next year and is planning to try out for the elite basketball team this fall. And why wouldn’t he? His coach’s actions and words told him that he’s great.

And he believed him.