Games in every sport produce a winner and a loser. That’s the point of having the game in the first place- to have two teams compete to find out which one is better. But the actual winning and losing part of sports has much greater emphasis at the high school, college and professional level than it does in youth-league sports. This is particularly evident in the popular practice of awarding participation trophies to young athletes whether they win or lose. But do these trophies send the wrong message?
Participation trophies have fueled recent debate after Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison took away his 8- and 6-year-old sons’ awards that he believed were not earned. Harrison posted a photo of his sons’ 2015 Best of the Batch Next Level Athletics Student-Athlete awards to his Instagram account to accompany his thoughts on the empty meaning of such trophies.
“I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! 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,” Harrison wrote. “I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned, 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…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut you up and keep you happy.”
According to The Washington Post, most of the nearly 900 Instagram commenters to Harrison’s post praised his parenting. Those who agreed with Harrison included former NFL player Shawne Merriman.
“I applaud James Harrison for not wanting kids to be given trophies just for participating. I understand they are children and that games/activities are supposed to be fun, but giving them awards just to do something is setting them up for failure in life because the world doesn’t work that way,” Merriman posted to Facebook. “If they feel that showing up is all they have to do in order to get rewarded, what will happen when life challenges them? The attitude of ‘At least I came’ or ‘At least I showed up’ won’t make you successful in anything.”
A post by Jeanne Jaggers to the Sentinel’s Facebook page Wednesday expressed similar sentiments.
“I think trophies should be given out in kids’ sports to the winning team. Team sports are a competition, and as such, there is a winner and a loser,” Jaggers wrote. “I don’t believe kids should get rewarded just for participating. By giving them a reward just for playing isn’t a lesson. Showing them that hard work and dedication to a sport makes them a better player (is the lesson). Better players win games, and winners get rewarded. Not everyone can be a winner, but showing kids there is a difference is the lesson.”
But young children often have fragile psyches and can be easily discouraged. Thus, many youth-league parents and coaches believe participation trophies are the answer to keep kids happy and motivated to play. And the result has been the proliferation of such awards. According to a New York Times story, trophy and award sales were an estimated $3 billion industry in the U.S. and Canada in 2013.
However, like most anything else, participation trophies do seem to have a point of diminishing returns. The large number of them that are awarded today has somewhat decreased their significance, and they also lose intrinsic value as children get older.
“The first trophy means something, even if it’s just a participation trophy. It’s very exciting, and all the kids I studied remembered the circumstances from the first trophy they got,” sociologist and author Hilary Levey Friedman told the Daily Beast. “But very quickly, these participation trophies lose their meaning unless it’s for a really big win.”
And not only do these trophies become less meaningful over time, they can also send the wrong message. By being rewarded for simply participating, kids may feel entitled to things later in life, such as a good grade in school or a job promotion, just for showing up. But that’s not how life works, and mediocrity cannot be rewarded, said Above the Law’s Elie Mystal.
“Participation trophies ruin lives,” Mystal wrote. “They create a false sense of accomplishment that tells kids to be proud of mediocrity at the very time they should be learning important lessons about dealing with failure and overcoming setbacks.”
Local youth-league coaches Scott Matthews and Daran Anderson seem to realize these psychological effects, as neither of them give out awards just for participating. Matthews said he gave out participation trophies in the past but has stopped this practice for the past couple years.
“For the past couple years, we’ve only given out trophies when the team has won a tournament,” he said. “I think when kids are younger than 8, it’s OK to give out participation trophies. But as they get older, these kids need to realize that nothing is ever given to you in life. You don’t get something just for showing up. You have to earn it.”
Meanwhile, Anderson said he withheld his team’s trophy until his players finished the state tournament.
“On the first day of the tournament, we got a participation trophy for being there. But I didn’t want my players to settle for that award,” he said. “I don’t disagree with giving out participation awards, but I want my players to go as far as they can before getting their trophy.”
As for youth sports leagues associated with the Scottsboro Rec*Com, Athletic Director Sonja Hard said the awarding of participation trophies is strictly up to the coaches and parents.
“The only trophies we give out are to the winners and runners-up in championship games,” Hard said.
And therein lies the critical distinction, as the true accomplishments need to be rewarded while losses can turn into teachable moments, according to Psychology Today’s Dr. Vivian Diller. Diller said this approach serves kids best later in life.
“For me, the problem isn’t the profusion of positive reinforcement kids get nowadays, but rather the failure to distinguish the accomplishments that deserve it from those that don’t,” Diller wrote. “Perhaps if we issued the gold, silver and bronze for actual achievements, kids would learn lessons that better served their needs as adults. Perhaps if we let them lose and teach them to congratulate those who win, we would help them build the motivation and endurance needed to face real-life challenges.”