Participation Trophies: The Good, the Bad, and the Lessons Learned
By Aimee C. Kimball, PhD
Yup. One parent, albeit an NFL player, decides that he doesn’t want his kids to have a “participation trophy” and now the floodgates have opened and every parent who has ever had a little kiddo in sports has an opinion. You just want to know what the right thing to do is so you don’t screw up your kid for life. Who are you to listen to, the hippie mom who says if her child just works his hardest he deserves to be rewarded or the hardcore pro football player who says his kids need to actually accomplish something before they get a trophy? As a mother whose children have received “participation” trophies as well as a sport psychology expert who has two advanced degrees in this kind of thing, I have both an educated opinion and a practical one. Hint: I’m more in line with James Harrison than a hug-it-out-just-show-up-and-get-rewarded parent….sort of.
As you read the following, keep in mind I am talking about youth athletes (not high school, club, AAU, etc, though many of the below thoughts do apply).
Opinion #1: Youth sport is about teaching life skills. Life skills must be TAUGHT, you can’t just assume kids will learn lessons via sport participation that will help them be successful in life if you don’t connect the dots for them. If every decision you make as a parent or coach (or both) comes down to, “What is this teaching kids about life? How will this lesson benefit them later on?” then you’ll probably be making a good decision.
Opinion #2: Trophies are not evil. We like shiny things-whether it’s a Super Bowl ring, an MVP trophy, or a first place medal, we like to get acknowledged for our HARD WORK paying off. It’s not the trophy itself that’s bad, it’s the reason why it’s given that is being questioned.
Opinion #3: What the trophy represents is more important than the trophy itself. Ask any NFL star who has won the Super Bowl which was more important, the ring or the win—they will say the win. If your child receives a “participation” trophy that only represents the fact that they signed up for a league and the only requirement to get a trophy is that they show up periodically, then it lacks any kind of real value to the athlete. Trophies for doing nothing but participating are only rewarding you for doing the minimum—is this the life lesson you want your kids to learn?
Opinion #4: You don’t have to take away a kid’s trophy. Now my kids are younger (11 months, 3 & 5) so taking away a trophy from them would be pretty cruel. For those of you in leagues or camps where all participants get trophies, instead of protesting, use it as a teachable moment. My kids just finished a soccer camp where they got a medal. They wear these medals proudly. They show them to each other. You know what I do? I ask them what they did to EARN the medal. I made them tell me what they learned, how they improved, and why they are proud of themselves. I did this every practice as well, not just at the end of the season. At this age, it’s important to teach them that by focusing on learning new skills, working hard, and doing everything you can to be better each day that you will eventually be successful.
Opinion #5: Know how you want your kids to define success. If you (as a parent) only define success as winning or being the best, then your kids’ confidence will waiver, they may fear losing (because if they lose you will be disappointed), and they will be super hard on themselves. They may be really good, successful athletes, they just may not enjoy sport as much unless they win. My definition of success: doing everything you can to give yourself the best chance to win/be the best. Winning is uncontrollable—someone may be better than you. There’s nothing wrong with that. As long as you did everything you could to be your best you can still be proud of yourself. “Be your best” is a much different message than “participate”. Do I want my kids to be the best? Absolutely. But to me, success is not and should not always be about comparisons to others. Being the best it the ultimate success, but not the only way to be successful.
Opinion #6: Teach your kids to be competitive. None of my kids have participated in a competitive league but they are two uber competitive kids. This has nothing to do with trophies, this has to do with parenting. I raised them to want to win, to value success, but, more importantly, to understand what it takes to win. Daily battles like who can eat more veggies or who can get into bed first teach and encourage competitiveness. Is this the best way to parent, who knows, it’s my way and it works sometimes. Wanting to win and be the best is a good thing—it gives you something to work towards and motivates you to do the work. And it gets my kids to eat and sleep. They don’t even get a trophy for it.
Opinion #7: Youth sport is about fun and friends. Winning is icing on the cake. If you’re winning but not having fun, what’s the point?
Opinion #8: Parent any way you see fit. We all value different things and have different ways of teaching kids these values. When it comes to sport parenting, my advice is to constantly revisit my Opinion #1 and ask yourself, “What is this teaching my kids that will benefit them later in life?” Depending on the lesson you want them to learn, then give them a trophy, don’t give them a trophy, your call, just be consistent and talk to them about what the trophy represents.
The bottom line is that I believe trophies should be reserved for recognizing accomplishment. I don’t believe every kid who gets a uniform should be given a trophy because their registration fees paid for it. I do believe that if a child has clear goals and he/she accomplishes those goals then recognition should be given. It doesn’t have to be in the form of a trophy, maybe just a few kind words from the coach. The purpose of youth sport is to teach kids the tools to be successful in their sport and in life. Not every child will be the best athlete. Not all of the best athletes will be winners. However, all children can learn what it means to be successful and that success doesn’t just happen, it has to earned.
Make it Great!
More information for youth sport parents: http://kpexconsulting.com/resources/handout-for-parents/
More information for youth sport coaches: http://kpexconsulting.com/resources/handout-for-youth-sport-coaches/
Dr. Aimee Kimball is a Mental Training Consultant in Pittsburgh, PA and owner of KPEX Consulting. She is an Association of Applied Sport Psychology Certified Consultant, and is a member of the American Psychological Association, the United States Olympic Committee’s Sport Psychology Registry, and the USA Swimming Sports Medicine Network. She works with athletes, coaches, teams and parents to help them achieve success in sport and life. With 3 kids under 5, she tests her own mental toughness on a daily basis. For more information contact: AimeeKimball@KPEXconsulting.com; www.KPEXconsulting.com