Starting in the late 20th century as an initiative to build self-esteem amongst youths, participation trophies quickly gained steam and have become a staple of youth athletics.
Their purpose was to encourage participation and reward effort. Parents liked the initiative because it developed confidence in their kids; children liked receiving a cool trophy; trophy-makers liked it because their industry was set to experience a boom in demand. However, participation trophies received significant pushback throughout the past decade as a contributing factor to the supposedly “soft” nature of America’s youngest generations. From Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison to television personality Glenn Beck, everyone seems inclined to share their informed opinions on why participation trophies are damaging the minds of today’s children.
In the most recent anti-participation trophy tirade to go viral, Jeff Walz, head coach of the University of Louisville (Ky.) women’s basketball program, blasted the participation trophy generation.
“The generation of kids that are coming through, everybody gets a damn trophy,” Walz said. “You finish last, you come home with a trophy. You kidding me? What’s that teaching kids? It’s okay to lose!”
While the emotion of Walz’s press statement may have been spurred by his team’s loss to Maryland, he is not the first to express disgust towards participation trophies. Harrison sparked national conversation about the topic last year when he posted on his Instagram page that he was taking away his two sons’ participation trophies because “everything in life should be earned.”
As a millennial who has never “earned” many sports trophies, I can confirm that participation trophies are real. What’s more, they probably aren’t going away. According to a 2015 CNN article, most parents expect participation trophies for their children, which signals that a move away from participation trophies could prove disastrous for the youth athletics industry. Even if these organizations wished to eliminate participation trophies from a moral standpoint, the economic toll of such a decision would be enormous. This almost ensures that participation trophies are here to stay.
I understand the thought process behind the pushback against participation trophies. Not everyone wins in the real world. Furthermore, the theory that we need to protect the next generation from becoming “soft” (a fear as old as America itself) boosts the egos of those in the preceding generations. But it seems that the primary reasoning behind the pushback is founded on a philosophy failing to recognize what’s most important when it comes to youth athletics.
The first problematic principle is the suggestion that losing is not okay. Walz’s primary argument against participation trophies was that they reward kids who lose and would instill the belief that losing is good enough.
Certainly, as a collegiate basketball coach, Walz’s job performance is assessed through a lens that values little more than wins and losses. The moral implications of the standards to which paid coaches are held are one thing, but Walz’s comments were clearly directed at youth athletics, not collegiate or professional competition, so they ought to be evaluated in that regard.
This aversion to losing at the youth level is harmful because it completely ignores the necessity for and value of losing. Every sporting competition has a winner and a loser (frequently losers). You cannot compete in athletics at any level and expect to win constantly. Youth athletics is about the experience, not the result. Perhaps professional athletics is all about winning, but we should not be teaching children that losing is not okay. People lose in real life, and losing in sports inevitably prepares you for the so-called “real world” more so than winning.
As Michael Jordan once said: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Ultimately, the notion that children will be happy with losing because of a plastic statue is absurd. Participation trophies in no way mitigate the pain of loss. Even little kids know what the score is, and want to win. After assistant coaching an under-six soccer team this past fall, I can confirm that most kids strongly dislike losing. Yet even after a loss, our team was rewarded with snacks and juice pouches. Shocking as this practice may be, the snacks did not make them forget the loss, nor did it instill a joy of losing. I find it unlikely that Harrison declines his paycheck following a Steelers loss, nor that he feels any better about the loss despite his reward. Likewise, participation trophies in no way deceive children into being satisfied with losing.
Finally, the focus on the trophy itself as an unearned reward teaches kids to value not the intangible benefits of sporting competition, but rather the material benefits. Confiscating a child’s participation trophy sends the message that the trophy is the ultimate motivation for their efforts.
But sports are about so much more than trophies. Youth athletics are valuable because of the life lessons they teach — lessons like how to operate as a team, how to practice your craft and how to compose yourself in both victory and defeat. While we ought to be teaching children that trophies don’t matter, we instead seem set on perpetuating the idea that a person hasn’t really earned anything until he or she has a physical or monetary representation of his or her efforts. As far as I’m able to tell, the “real world” doesn’t come with “earned” plastic rewards either. On the contrary, like participation trophies, the “real world” has a tendency to reward those who put in the effort to experience something new.
Participation trophies aren’t a flawless concept. However, if we believe that youth sports teach valuable life skills, we ought to do what we can to encourage participation amongst as many children as possible. Participation trophies are another way to do just that. Losing hurts, participation trophy or not, and the rewards of winning come in the form of pride from achieving a goal, not receiving a plastic figurine. So let’s take the focus off trophies and begin emphasizing the joy and the experience, the lasting rewards of healthy competition.