Participation Trophies: The Great Debate

Kids today… they’re lazy, entitled, underachieving parasites. Why? Sports participation trophies, obviously.

These trophies have become the scapegoat for all the problems we have with today’s youth. It makes me wonder what the previous generations blamed kids “softness” on. Rock n Roll? Indoor plumbing? The automobile?

The chief complaint is that we tell our children that they’re perfect, and special, and brilliant and can do no wrong. And the participation trophy is the very emblem of this coddled, protected relationship. It serves to remind the child that no matter what, they’re a winner.

Only thing is, I think the participation trophy is a red herring. For some reason, we’ve misdirected our vitriol at a ribbon or piece of painted plastic. I may be in the minority on this one, but I don’t believe this memento is the source of all this power to doom our children to grow up to be soft, fragile, unambitious adults. I’m not trying to suggest there aren’t young adults that are entitled or that have difficulty accepting failure or facing challenges. I’m also not trying to suggest that all young people (don’t make me use the term Millennial, please) are this way. In my experience, they’re not, and it’s an over-reaching generalization to imply they are. What I am suggesting, however, is that this isn’t the fault of a participation trophy.

Who’s to Blame?

The chief argument against providing a participation trophy is that it gives children something for nothing. It teaches them that they don’t need to win to win. It teaches them that effort isn’t tied to awards. And perhaps there is some validity in this thinking.

However, I believe the fault is in the way we parent our children (more on this in a moment), and not purely the act of giving them a badge after 3 months of baseball practice and games. Kids are smart. A six-year-old knows the team didn’t win first place. He knows that the trophy or ribbon he/she received isn’t emblematic of being the best of the best. It’s a nice bonus, that they’re excited to receive to commemorate the season, but their motivation for practicing and working their hardest at games isn’t in pursuit of this tchotchke. No, they work hard because it’s fun and challenging. I recall one season my son asked me if they would be getting a trophy or medal at the end of the season again. I said, “no, son” (it was fall ball and there wasn’t any of that). He shrugged and said, “ok.” It didn’t faze him for a moment. Because it was never about the trophy; it was always about the experience. The trophy didn’t tell him he could do no wrong and that everyone is a winner – it simply served as a souvenir.

For the Love of the Game

When children are learning the game (be it baseball, basketball, soccer, etc), we want to teach them the fundamentals not only of the sport, but of teamwork, and self improvement. But why not go straight to the lesson that if you’re not a winner, you’re a loser? Well, we want them to continue to play the sport and develop a love for it. Significant health benefits of physical activity aside, research shows there are a number of additional benefits that come from the continual participation in sports. Organized sports activity helps children develop and improve cognitive skills. High school athletes are more likely to attend college than non-athletes. The benefits extend to the workplace – a survey of 400 female corporate executives found 94% played a sport and that 61% say that has contributed to their career success (EY Women Athletes Business Network/espnW, 2014). So, it goes to reason that we want our children to continue to have interest in playing a sport for any number of these benefits.

So, what do we do to encourage participation, learning and growth? If handing a kid a $2.00 piece of gold-painted plastic after dozens of hours of effort will influence them to come back and do another season, or try additional sports, then I don’t see the harm. If your seven-year-old hoists his new souvenir in the air with pride, and it helps him to remember that he had a blast and wants to do it again, then perhaps it’s worth it and not harmful at all.

The Magic is in the Parenting

Your kid will not suddenly become a fluffy marshmallow upon receiving their token at the end of the season. However, sports provide a number of parables for life, and numerous opportunities for good parenting. It’s not about telling your child they’re flawless and that they never make mistakes. It’s not about telling your son or daughter that standing in the outfield with their finger in their nose is totally acceptable. But there will be many moments when you see your child fail, and moments when you see your child succeed during organized sports. Take the opportunity to teach your child life lessons. It’s ok to identify that striking out isn’t ideal, and talking about self-improvement with your child. And, subsequently, taking the opportunity to practice with your child. This will teach them that mistakes are natural and that they can be overcome through hard work and perseverance.

Look for the opportunities to teach. I agree – coddling your child will not help them succeed. Helping them identify challenges and find a means to overcome those challenges will help your child learn how to succeed. And you get the added bonus of bonding with your child. You see, participation shouldn’t be limited to the field or court, and it shouldn’t be limited to your child. YOU need to participate outside of games and practice. You need to take advantage of the opportunities for growth that naturally present themselves throughout organized sports. But, be forewarned – there’s no trophy for your participation. Stay motivated anyway.

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