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.