Little golden plastic figurines have become the center of a cultural debate on parenting and youth sports. There are experts who say these trinkets are ruining a generation and setting them up for a lifetime of entitled underachievement; there are experts who say they are harmless; there are experts who say these small tokens may have long-term positive effects on a child’s drive to succeed. They are talking, of course, about the infamous participation trophy.
The issue of participation trophies picked up steam when Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison publicly stated that he opposed them in 2015. Oppose is too soft a term. He hates them. He claims to have taken his kids’ participation trophies away from them for fear that they sent the wrong message about competing and winning. Since that incident, just about everybody, expert or no, has weighed in. With little effort, you can find a viewpoint from an “expert” on the internet that reinforces your existing stance on the matter. As admitted non-experts, let us try to wade into the middle of the fray, perilous though it may be, to bring some calm and reason to gather around and move the discussion forward; a plan to settle the debate once and for all.
Participation trophies will never be debated on the floor of Congress, nor will they ever be the subject of legislative action, yet the discussion surrounding them has political overtones. On the anti-trophy side you have a more conservative crowd, a free-market survival-of-the-fittest crowd, and a kind of tough-guy crowd that wants kids to grow up like they did “back in the day,” in a participation trophy-free world. Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck has captured the thoughts of that crowd with some pretty strong anti-participation trophy sentiments. The pro-trophy crowd may, somewhat unfairly, see this anti-trophy crowd as grouches that want to see kids get their feelings hurt and be “put in their place.” In reality, the anti-trophy sentiment is a reflection of that group’s own experiences. They turned out fine, or they think they did, without receiving a trophy for participating, and believe that today’s kids will too.
On the other side you have the parents of the “self-esteem” movement, though we argue that this is largely a straw man set up by the anti-crowd. In the debate, these parents are depicted as uber-liberal, financially comfortable suburbanites, doting incessantly on their precious child and shielding them from the “real world” (and also non-organic foods). In this mostly imagined scenario, the participation trophies are the size of The Stanley Cup and are gleefully given to little boys and girls along with a giant ice-cream sundae to celebrate their last place finish and protect them from processing the emotions of failure.
Reality exists somewhere between the extremes. The participation trophy debate should be refocused and moved away from overgeneralizing the other camp. In the real world there are some very good coaches giving out awards to kids who are not the team MVP or league champions. These are only occasionally actual trophies, more often they are a small medal or ribbon. Good coaches, smart coaches, coaches who get it, are finding ways to acknowledge and reward effort. The awards are not for “best participant” they are for “good hustle,” “good sportsmanship,” “best teammate,” “most improved,” and a range of other titles that highlight the specifics of what a player did well. These are things we value in sports and in society, and they can be safely rewarded even if they don’t result in more points on the scoreboard than the other team without turning a child “soft.”
The other main component of this issue that adults may be missing is that kids are not stupid, and they are, in many ways, much more insecure about their failures. Try this little experiment. Next time you are around a group of kids, play a quick game of Chutes and Ladders. Give the winner an ice cream cone and all the losers a granola bar. Do you think the granola bar kids are going to be oblivious to the fact that the winner was rewarded disproportionately to them? Kids getting a small participation award will, in almost all cases, not be completely satisfied with it. They will still want to win. This is hard-wired in most people and it does not go away when they are given a piece of plastic that says “participant.”
You might remain unconvinced and contend that participation based awards should not exist and that winning is the only time youth sports players should be given awards and having their performance validated. However, this is where the issue really gets sticky for us. Not all kids can win at sports every year, but in today’s world all kids can seek and find validation elsewhere if they desire it.
Kids who need affirmation (i.e. all kids) but are not inherently good at sports will have no problem finding it elsewhere. They will leave sports for good. Video games are a prime example of this phenomenon. If you are not familiar with modern video games let’s get you up to speed. Video games are designed to be won by each and every person that plays them (they are also designed to be addictive). You put in the time and you will beat the game. If you don’t want to put in the time, you can lower the difficulty setting (what kind of message is that!). While playing video games kids can defeat their enemies, move up from one level to the next, and earn things that are literally called “achievements,” all without getting off their butts. We should note that this doesn’t mean video games are evil or that kids who play them cannot also be well adjusted. Some kids (and adults) who play video games get very good at them through practice. It is a skill. However, video games are designed to give kids all the validation they need to feel that they are improving at something. Kids who play video games aren’t getting participation trophies, they are getting giant glittery first place trophies for beating something that was designed to be beaten.
Both anti- and pro-trophy camps can agree that kids should get outside and do things (like play sports); even the most fervent of anti-trophy adults would likely agree that a kid getting a participation trophy just for showing up to a dozen soccer games is a preferable to that kid staying inside all summer logging hundreds of hours on the latest Call of Duty game. This leads to the question that looms large in this debate that should be at the forefront: Do participation trophies work? In other words, does getting a small token to reward participation or, really, effort keeps some kids coming back to sports? What we need to know is how common this scenario actually is.
Awarding a kid for participation is awarding them for trying and if awarding them for trying keeps them trying then when should keep the award. The problem is that we do not seem to know if the participation trophy works in this way. While there are dozens of opinion-based articles on the matter there are no empirical studies on whether this type of recognition increases retention in youth sports. We call on Little League, AYSO, or The YMCA to conduct such a study if the data are available. Concrete figures on effectiveness of participation awards would be considerably more valuable than the chorus of psychologists pushing their pet theories (often tied to books they are selling), particularly given the lack of consensus. While many people may believe they know what the results of such a study would look like, nobody can really say anything for sure until it is complete. Perhaps participation trophies will be found to boost retention, which could flip the narrative and turn them into a valuable tool to combat losses of kids in organized sports. Maybe we find out what Beck and others have speculated about is true, they do no good and could be done away with. If a thorough study is done, we should accept the results and act accordingly. A data-driven approach to such an emotionally driven issue is really the only way to cut through all the hot air and end the ongoing participation trophy debate.
Oh, and if you made it all the way through this article: Good job! We’re proud of you.