Well, if anything, you read the title and you’ve already made up your mind, most likely that I’m wrong. Fair enough–but I’m not wrong.
I’m not really sure where the term ‘participation trophy’ came from or why it became a pejorative/insult. Most likely, the same people who try and use words like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ as insults–and don’t understand the meaning or value of those words either. In any event…
Participation trophies are exactly what the term means–awards given to individuals (usually children) playing sports (or any other activity), not for winning or success, but simply for participating. For a majority of Harry-Hardass coaches, that’s just wrong, plain wrong, and back in the good ol’ days(TM), that crap would never have happened. Never.
Except memory is selective. I mean, somewhere around here in my house, there’s still a certificate my father got for participating in a city poetry contest when he was a freshman in high school in 1955. I know I’ve got a couple Little League trophies here, including one from a year I just rode the bench getting to play only the mandated two innings/week (because the coach wanted to win and I was 8 in a league of 8-10yr olds). That was 1977-78. Yeah, not great examples–let’s go with a more common example of a participation trophy.
Every high school in America awards varsity letters. These aren’t awarded based on winning–these are given for participating in a certain number of contests or for going out for a sport in every year of high school. Nowhere in the criteria for a varsity letter do you see ‘must have won a state title’ or ‘must have reached the conference championship game’ nor do you see ‘must have started for a team with a winning record.’
The argument I get against that is, “But that’s different!” Sure–because you value your varsity letter. It’s important to YOU. That kid halfway across the country you’ll never meet, never coach–it’s easy to poo-poo his trophy or ribbon as pathetic, that participation trophies are for losers–because it means nothing to you! That’s hypocritical.
Another example? Look around at everyone who wears t-shirts for various 5k/10k races. Those are participation awards, too–“Look, I finished this race and got this t-shirt.” What’s the difference here between finishing a 5k race and playing a full season of Little League?
The reality? Participation trophies do matter (think how many businesses reward employees for 10/20/30 years of employment…not your greatness, just that you stuck with it). They are important, and they have roles to play, especially in youth activities.
- They reward sticking with an activity–that’s a life lesson, that once you start something, there will be a reward for seeing it thru until it is finished.
- They are a reward for successfully working in a team environment–you had an opportunity at improving social skills, understanding different roles. Again, an important lesson for life after adolescence.
- They are positive reinforcement that encourages a young person to continue participating, not just in that specific sport, but all activities. It encourages young people to explore interests, find what they like and don’t like.
The last one is important. 70% of children under 13 give up playing sports–because it has been made to be about winning rather than having fun–competition over participation. Here are some other tidbits:
- 65% of kids play so they can be around their friends
- 71% don’t care about the score/would play anyways if the score wasn’t kept
- 42% wish parents wouldn’t be permitted to watch
- 93% would rather play on a losing team than ride the bench on a winning team
- 41% have been lectured/yelled at by a coach for ‘not being competitive enough’
- 35% intend to quit playing sports as soon as they can
See? Participation trophies are vital–it reinforces that it’s okay to have FUN, that being around friends is GREAT, and that playing is AWESOME. Those scoreboards–they are there for the adults…heck, club volleyball teams are now bragging about their Win-Loss records for Pete’s sake. Seriously. And how many kids know that W-L record? *NONE* Just rereading those stats makes me sad, no, actually furious–1/3 intending to quit ASAP? “Adults” ruin everything–for their own kids and other people’s. 41% of 8-13 yr olds told ‘not competitive enough’–just…wow.
I know the value of ‘participation trophies’ firsthand. The Creator did not bless me with athleticism. On a baseball field, I can scoop anything at first base and can foul off 50 pitches until you walk me and that’s it. Basketball–I’ll give you 100% effort, but can’t do anything else, I can’t golf, don’t run fast and have no hops…none of that. Volleyball? Hahahah…I can’t hit, can’t block, can’t pass.
By all accounts including my own(!), I suck at sports. But those participation trophies? They kept me active, kept me interested, so that I started playing sports simulations which led to my fascination with statistics and sports data–which helped open the door for me eventually to work with Jim Stone (and D.C. Koehl) at Ohio State (and thus receive an Big 10 Champ/NCAA Final Four ring as part of OSU’s last championship squad in ’94).
Those participation trophies? They helped me as a grade school and 12u club coach–because not everyone is blessed with athleticism–I knew why those kids were playing, that they needed confidence and positive experiences, that they needed to be encouraged to stay physically active–even if it they moved on from volleyball to other activities.
Those participation trophies that suck? They encouraged me to try new things–to participate. I learned I like boardgame and role-playing games that way, learned that LARPs aren’t for me. I found I liked old-school, bolt-action paintball, but don’t care for paintball with automatic weapons or laser tag, either, for that matter. I learned that singing and theater aren’t for me, though improv is fun, writers groups aren’t for me–though I love writing. All of this comes from those participation trophies, those little ribbons from when I was young, more than forty years ago (that’s right, all the whining about kids today–and there were just as many ‘participation trophies’ 40 years ago and I’d be willing to bet 60 years ago, too) and the subtle encouragement to keep going with things I liked but may not have had talent in–or yet to develop a latent talent in.
So before you keep mocking participation trophies, consider the wise Cherokee words: “Before you judge, walk a mile in the other man’s shoes.” Remember that not everyone is blessed with speed or agility, strength or power, but as coaches, as teachers, we should encourage them to pursue their passions, to participate, to do everything to foster the goals of amateur athletics–and if you go look up the mission statements of most of those amateur organizations, you won’t find a mention of a scoreboard, y’know?