Should all kids get a participation trophy? Rethinking rewards in youth sports

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Youth sports trophies

I was listening to a favorite morning radio show recently when a debate broke out on one of the most controversial topics in youth/local sports: participation trophies. The arguments for and against usually go something like this:

Pro-trophy advocates say: Children should be rewarded for commitment, teamwork, and dedication. Offering rewards for participation demonstrates that winning isn’t everything but, rather, that their dedication to an activity at a young age is what’s really important. Besides, at that age, sports should be all about fun and personal growth, not tunnel vision on winning. 

Conversely, participation award opponents usually argue: We are setting kids up for attitudes of entitlement. By giving trophies to everyone, regardless of outcome in their games, we strip their desire to compete and achieve. A trophy signifies that participants put in the hard work and actually did achieve a common goal. To give trophies to everyone would dilute their significance.  

Both arguments seem logical and valid, but I can’t help thinking that we’re asking the wrong question. The trophy debate in itself assumes the sole common goal is winning (trophies of either type, of course, suggesting the child is a “winner,” however we define it), and that all activities are inherently directed towards and subservient to it. So, skill development, leadership formation, lessons in teamwork and the like are important, yet they are all means to an end (winning). The arguments of trophy proponents and opponents both make this assumption, simply differing on where along the path to a championship children deserve a physical reward.

As an alternative, I’d propose to youth coaches and leagues a different reward system for their children’s athletic participation. Instead of blanketing trophies across bookshelves, perhaps it is advisable to de-emphasize the value of the trophy. An athlete’s championship nature is, after all, internal and its own reward that should pay dividends for a lifetime.

As my colleague eloquently wrote, “the playing of sport is really not a reprieve from life, but an actualization of it.” It is indeed important to emphasize and reward athletes whose behavior reflects the values that will see them excel as good, thoughtful, caring leaders as they grow in age and maturity. Neither championship nor participation trophies can accomplish that.

Instead, let youth sports leagues and coaches offer more meaningful measures of success to their children. Thoughtful and effective leaders should be recognized by their coaches. Moments of good sportsmanship should be consciously identified and reflected upon. Excellent teamwork should yield a reward. Whether such rewards are physical or verbal, it’s worth the time to rethink the reason behind trophies and evaluate their significance. A trophy inherently says to its recipient: you accomplished something worthy of recognition. Participation is important, and winning is most definitely nice, but the moments in between – of character, confidence, relationship building, and self-discovery – those are the moments worth remembering and rewarding.

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About Jeffrey B. Eisenberg, M.A. // Coordinator, New Media, Communications and Events, ISSCD

At Neumann, Jeff works to build the Institute’s communication strategy with a focus on developing valuable resources relevant to student-athletes, coaches, administrators, and all groups the Institute strives to reach. He also serves as a co-chaplain of the Neumann Cross Country and Track & Field teams. Jeff holds a B.A. and M.A. in Strategic Communication from Villanova University.

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  • Mr. Eisenberg,
    I’m looking at differing opinions about participation trophy’s for children for background in a book about resilience development I’m writing. I had to pause and applaud you for the only voice I’ve seen so far attempting to take the conversation to a deeper level where solutions can actually be identified. I wholeheartedly agree that rewarding and developing character is the best goal. A mindset that playing a sport isn’t about winning but about becoming the best you can be and expanding “the best one can be” far beyond the playing field to relationships, character, believing that a loss is a lesson not an indictment and that we are always works in progress will benefit the child and everyone they touch throughout their life.
    Thank you,

    • Jeff Eisenberg

      Thank you, Jeanine! Indeed, we care more about the whole person and their lifelong success than the outcome of any individual game. I appreciate the kind words!
      – Jeff