The Debate Continues: Participation Trophies — Good or Bad?

By Michaele Arneson

The debate regarding participation trophies has been stirred up again, in large part due to Pittsburg Steelers linebacker James Harrison’s recent comments about the trophies his 6- and 8-year old boys received.

From his Instagram post:

“While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy…. I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy.”

The resulting comments to Harrison’s post overwhelmingly support his position. From moderate “I could not agree more. Thank you for speaking up and out,” to passionate “[p]articipation trophies are a complete embarrassment to our country,” it appears that many have a disdain for participation trophies.

Science also shows that unearned reward may have negative effects on children. A Stanford University study showed that kids respond positively to praise, but after being praised for something they were naturally good at they would cheat their way to success if difficulty was encountered. Other studies show that if kids know they will be rewarded regardless of their effort, they do not perform at their highest ability.

Obviously we sell trophies and awards, so you would think we want parents and coaches to buy lots of participation trophies. Honestly, we’ve seen all levels of youth sports recognition — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and have come to the conclusion that there are good reasons, and ways, to give participation awards, and there are definitely reasons and ways that don’t seem like the best idea.

We’ve seen coaches buy certificates, medals, AND trophies — all three at one time — for ALL of the kids on their team, ALL with the same message, ALL just for participating in that one particular sport for that one particular season. We’ve also seen coaches buy trophies for all their players, except one or two, because those one or two players’ parents didn’t reimburse the coach the previous year for the expense of the trophy. Both of these examples cause us to question the value of participation trophies.

As a parent, I can’t say I ever minded the kids receiving participation awards. It was a fun way to celebrate the end of the season, and it did serve as recognition for completing something they had started. In today’s world of instant gratification via electronics, a 10-year-old playing an hour-long game of baseball in which he maybe gets to field the ball twice and be up to bat just a couple of times each game, and does that repeatedly for a 12-game season despite the lack of non-stop stimuli, in my opinion, is deserving of a token of participation.

For those who are still against the idea of giving a reward simply for the sake of it, maybe a change in perspective is worthwhile. When I coached my daughter’s softball team, I did give end-of-season trophies, but I made sure to recognize, on their individual trophy, each member for a specific contribution to the team. One teammate was recognized for “Best Questions Asked” for her questions that reminded me that not everyone had been playing the sport for many years. Another received “Most Willing to Carry Equipment,” another received “Most Team Spirit,” and so on.

Another way to recognize participation is to give items that commemorate the season (or event) that aren’t really awards. Personalized bag tags that participants can use on their sports bags, backpacks, or luggage are a great way to provide a physical memory of the activity without the stigma of receiving an award. Many trophy stores have new products and capabilities beyond traditional trophies to create relatively inexpensive personalized mementos suitable for young participants, items such as sports bottles, keyrings, lanyards, shoelaces, and more.

Whatever your opinion of participation awards is, one thing is for certain: someone will disagree with you. Most would agree that we enroll our kids in youth athletics for them to learn how to cooperate with others (teamwork) and to learn gracious behavior in each situation (sportsmanship). Let us be mindful of these goals in our own words and actions, both on and off our children’s playing fields.

The Debate Continues: Participation Trophies — Good or Bad?

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