Participation Trophies

Baseball

This morning I read yet another article lamenting that every kid is given a trophy for Little League or soccer.  The author was of the opinion that parents are giving kids too much praise.  Other variations say we are harming children by not keeping score, because kids aren’t learning the value of competition.

Today I’m sharing some of my thoughts as a parent and coach of teams with both winning and losing records.

Are participation trophies harming kids?

I think the answer lies in WHY the children are playing sports in the first place.  Are your kids playing to:

  • get exercise
  • learn new skills
  • spend time with friends / make new friends
  • learn to work as a team – supporting each others strengths and weaknesses
  • feel superior to other players  / let you feel superior to other parents  (I’m not advocating this as a reason for playing youth sports, but it does seem to be the case sometimes.)
  • achieve the goal of winning the most games

If your kids are playing sports to get exercise, learn some new skills, be with their friends and have fun, those goals are achieved by playing the game.  It’s perfectly okay to congratulate the kids, at the end of the season, for making the effort to come to practice and games and for developing their skills.  A participation ribbon or trophy is simply a memento of the season.  They know if they had a winning or losing season without having it stamped on their trophy.  I don’t think a trophy is necessary, but I don’t think it does any harm or damage either.

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If your kid is playing with the goal of showing off as a great player, that will prove itself out in the number of runs or goals.  His or her team will appreciate the contribution to the team.  There will be plenty of praise.

Are your kids playing to win the most games?

A recreational league probably isn’t the best place to try to achieve that goal. While leagues try to make balanced teams one kid can really tip a team toward a winning season or a losing season.   On the soccer field, one or two very talented kids can create a winning team.   Sometimes a team will have a new kid or a kid who just doesn’t enjoy the game or isn’t very talented.  If you happen to get a team with two or three kids in that situation, it can be really difficult to ever win a game.  Sometimes the schedule ends up so that the weakest team plays the best team 2 or 3 times and only plays the most evenly matched team once or perhaps not at all if rain outs aren’t rescheduled.

In an “everybody plays” league winning and losing is largely a matter of team composition. Which team you are on is a matter of luck.  Do we really want to be awarding trophies based on luck?  Is the child of average talent who happened to be placed on a strong team more deserving of a trophy than a good player who showed leadership on the field but happened to be on a weaker team?  Or would we rather say to all the kids – thanks for coming out, practicing and making the season fun for everyone?

If your child wants more competition find a competitive league.  There are leagues where teams have more flexibility on practice times and requirements, where kids play together for a long time and have a chance to develop as a team.

If you want a more competitive atmosphere try finding an individual sport.   Individual competitions, like karate or gymnastics, award more ribbons and trophies based on rank at a younger age, because in an individual sport the child has more control over their performance.  Karate and other individual sports can be practiced at home to achieve improvement.

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As for giving too much praise, I wonder if the author has BEEN to a youth sports game.  There are parents who are supportive and understand their child is working hard out there on the field.  Those parents say things like, “Good job”, “Great try”, “You’ll get it next time.”  I’m not sure any kid has ever had their sense of self worth damaged by hearing “good job” when they do something right.  Occasionally there are parents who don’t understand the game well and praise kids for doing things that aren’t very helpful  (kicking the ball out of bounds every time they get it), but no parent stands out in my mind as delivering too much praise to their kid from the sideline.

Unfortunately there are many parents who coach from the sidelines in a critical manner.  I’ve had one or two kids on my teams that I tried to always play on the coach side so they couldn’t hear their parents.  Thankfully most of these are things I’ve heard from other teams:

“Why didn’t you get around him?  Be Aggressive.”

“What are you DOING?”

“You’re not going to score any goals like that!”

Sometimes I think the kids deserve an award at the end of the season just for putting up with all the coaching and criticism that comes from parents who couldn’t run the field for 10 minutes much less the hour of a game or the 2 1/2 hours of practice.  Even when kids know the right things to do it’s hard to put it all together and execute on it.

Do coaches and teams try to win?  Yes.  Children and adults want to score and win, because it makes the game more fun.  Does that mean we need to rank and compare teams?  No.  Winning teams know they are having a winning season without trophies or making a big deal out of their record.  It’s fun to have a winning record or be undefeated.

In youth sports the mission is to have fun, develop skills, build teams and build-up players. The score or the team record isn’t everything.  Success is found in keeping a positive attitude, perseverance, and improving your skills.  As a parent / coach I’m far more proud of a team who supports each other when things go wrong and improves their skills over the course of a season than I am of a team that wins every game if they don’t treat each other and their opponents with respect.

So don’t be afraid to say, “Good job”, “Great season!”, “Hope to see you next year!” and accept a small memento of the season.   Remember it’s the kids who slogged through a tough season that need the most encouragement to come back and give it another try next year. They need to know that at the end of the season what really counts is the effort they made and the way they treated each other.  It’s about persistence, tenacity, team work, and improving your skills.  Let’s not convince 9 year olds it’s only the scores that matter.

4 thoughts on “Participation Trophies

  1. This was an interesting post. I agree with much of what you said. Positive feedback is always good. Both of my girls participate in competitive team dance. They receive yearly participation medals and team trophies if they are successful at competitions. They often dance and home and if I see them not pointing their toes a comment such as “You really do a good job pointing your toes,” makes them do it right away with a smile where as a comment like “point your toes!” makes them feel bad, but they also point their toes.

    Participating in dance, they are part of a team whos members are mostly the same from year to year. The girls look forward to their medals and really work hard to earn them by practicing all year long. On the other hand, they would happily dance if no medals were involved. They do it for the love of dance, not for the reward.

    • “They do it for the love of dance not for the reward”

      That’s what I was trying to say. I don’t think participation trophies or medals are harming anyone because the kids are (or at least should be ) doing something they enjoy that is fun.
      We participate in some things that give trophies and some that don’t, either way is fine with my kids.

  2. This is a really good post, with many wonderful advice. It’s sometimes difficult and very stressful to be around very competitive parents who take every game too seriously. It is important for children to know it’s ok to participate in an activity just for the enjoyment.

  3. Very well put. I agree completely. My 10 year old daughter plays rugby and does karate, completely for the love of it. She does enjoy the competition, too, but she much prefers the encouraging coaches to the one that lets his own competitive tendencies show.

    Meanwhile, if my 8 year old son (who has Sensory Processing Disorder) could manage to participate in even one single full session of a sport without melting down, it would be an Olympic medal occasion!

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