Should Everyone Get a Trophy?

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James Harrison returned his children’s participation trophies and my Facebook newsfeed blew up with news of the story as well as numerous op ed pieces, most all crediting Harrison for a parenting job well done.

I want to be clear: I have no problem with the parenting choice Harrison made.  In fact, I have huge admiration for his Instagram post.   Not so much for the act of returning the trophies as for these lines “I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die…” and “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.”

But I am not convinced that jumping on the “no participation trophy” bandwagon is the way to go.  At least without considering the unintended consequences of doing so.

Let’s think about it.  What is the purpose of a trophy?  Most might say that a trophy is to signify victory.  And while that is certainly the most traditional and most adult view of what trophies are, that’s not their entire purpose.

Trophies can also be reinforcement for work put in.  They can be commemorative of an experience.  And yes, their absence can inspire those who do not receive one to work harder and boost those who do win one to celebrate their accomplishment.

But here’s the thing: the trophies are not the problem.  The problem is how we, the adults, view and talk about youth sports. From both sides there are unintended consequences that our emphasis on everyone getting a trophy or that only the select few receiving them that effects young athletes.

Let’s consider each scenario:

When everyone is awarded, the down side is the risk that hard work is not incentivized, that mediocrity is celebrated and that our children grow up to be special snowflakes incapable of dealing with disappointment.   It is an unrealistic view of the world that we push on to our children: that they will always be acknowledged simply because they show up.

However, when everyone is awarded it acknowledges effort, commitment and reinforces that personal growth is more relevant than beating another athlete.  It may encourage a reluctant child to continue with the sport because they don’t fear the consequences of not being “the” best and because they are not discouraged by only the select few being acknowledged.

When only the winning athlete or team is only awarded, it can discourage those who are less experienced or physically developed from continuing with the sport.  It can also lead the adults who coach these teams to stack teams to their favor, exclude the less talented from participation and emphasize victory over skill development of all the athletes not just the talented few.   It is sports Darwinism: only fittest survive and the less talented give up entirely.

On the other hand, when only the top performers are awarded, it demonstrates that hard work isn’t always enough.  It can inspire the non-winning child to work hard and persevere longer to get their shot at a trophy.  It can positively reinforce the success of the winning children and the feelings of pride and accomplishment that go along with achievement.

So where do I fall on this question…well, it depends.  Here are the factors that I consider:

Age.  We should stop keeping score and entering kids into head to head competition before they are developmentally and emotionally prepared to deal with the concepts of winning and losing without labeling themselves winners or losers.   At what age this shift in logic occurs can be debated, but certainly when kids are under the age of 7 and still very much in the preoperational stage of development and cannot follow the logic that hard work doesn’t always pay off.  Instead of forcing them out of what is a normal and healthy developmental stage, we should have developmentally appropriate sports experiences which includes an emphasis on individual best and if awards are given, they should be based on their own performance not surpassing the performance of others.  As kids get older, they have the cognitive bandwidth to understand competition and while it can be disappointing to lose, it is an important part of their character development.

Level of Expertise.  When athletes are beginning a sport, they need a lot of encouragement and reinforcement to enjoy their participation.  At these emerging levels, giving more awards that helps shape their behavior and enjoyment of the sport is appropriate.  The extrinsic motivation keeps the athlete on task so the intrinsic motivation has a change to develop.   As athletes get better at a sport, there is a shift in how they want to be coached. They look for more critical feedback.  They are capable of judging their own performance.  They are less motivated by medals and trophies and more motivated by being the best version of themselves.  In fact, many athletes at this stage will eschew their awards even if they win if they know their performance was sub par.   Give beginning athletes more awards and taper them off as they gain experience.

The Purpose of the Award.  Much like companies might give a plaque to an employee for 5, 10 or 20 years of service, a trophy can be a signifier of completing a sports commitment.  For young kids who are learning about seeing obligations through, this might be a perfectly fine way to reinforce the message of sticking through until the end of something.  As kids get older, these lessons should have been learned perhaps a participation trophy is no longer necessary or appropriate.

The Purpose of the Sports League.  If the purpose of the sports league is for recreation and basic fitness, then awarding all of the kids for participating is appropriate.  If the purpose is to develop high level competitive athletes, it is not.   Parents should be aware of what kind of sports experience they are enrolling their child in before the child goes to play.

What it also comes down to is this: how you as a parent talk about winning, losing and the value of effort, determination and grit.  It is less about whether your child is or isn’t handed a $5 piece of plastic and more about the life lessons the adults in their lives reinforce.   James Harrison taught his sons that just showing up is not enough because that is the lesson he believed his boys were ready to learn.

Let’s remember this: American youths have never been more obese in our history.  We need kids to participate in sports to help combat this growing health crisis.  And, the number one reason kids quit sports is because they are no longer FUN.  Let’s work on that and worry less about how many trophies we do or don’t hand out.