Stop freaking out about participation trophies

11880578_917285475025716_3560632474789373122_nI’m supposed to be outraged by participation trophies. My Gen X credibility sort of depends on it. Here’s a dirty little secret: I don’t care. I mean I just don’t give a shit.

I would like less plastic crap in my house. But other than that, whatever.

This week, NFL player James Harrison made a big splash because he gave back participation trophies his kids brought home.

“I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise to boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy. #harrisonfamilyvalues”

-James Harrison

I will not spend a lot of time breaking down how the wealthy children of a pro football player don’t “earn” anything in their lives, nor should they. No children “earn” their lives, good or bad. They are provided to them by parents they have no way of selecting, so the “earn” thing is just stupid. Nor will I question why a bunch of people suddenly raised up a confessed domestic abuser as a role model for parenting. We’ll focus only on the matter at hand.

Contrary to what Mr. Harrison would like to assert, in kids’ sports, it does matter if you try your best. When you’re nine, if you try your best is the only thing that matters. Here’s why:

  1. Strictly from an athletic perspective, any coach worth anything will tell you that it is impossible to know in elementary school who will be a good athlete later. There are kids you are just sure are going to be all-stars. Third grade is as good as it gets for them. There are kids you cannot imagine will ever amount to anything. They end up in the pros. There is no way to know what anyone will be right now. So learning to work hard, to push yourself, to go back to practice, even if it didn’t go well last time is the only way to ever see if you’ve got anything in you. That’s why they have to play everyone. Because you never know. Only playing the best players now can get you short-term success. But it can kill you down the road when your amazing players plateau. 
  2. There is a work ethic and a team commitment kids should learn from sports. You go to every practice and game, barring obvious sickness or family obligation exceptions. You’re part of a team. You made the commitment. You show up. You go all in, every time. You try your best. You can’t only try your best when you think you can win. You have to try your best, even when you know you’re going to lose. That’s how you walk around with dignity.
  3. My son swims. He’s on a team, but he’s not only competing against other kids, he’s mostly competing against himself. By pushing himself to do better today than he did last time, he learns to set personal goals and achieve them. It doesn’t matter if he’s never an Olympic swimmer. It matters that learns how to accomplish big things…a little bit at a time.

We have to stop putting adult expectation on children. If you don’t think they know whether or not they’re any good, you have never been on the bench of the losing team after a soccer game. They know, ok. They know.

But they’re not supposed to be good…yet. They’re not supposed to be an expert at anything…yet. They’re not supposed to have mastered skills…yet. They’re not supposed to have “earned” it…yet. THAT’S WHY THEY’RE PLAYING SPORTS AND GOING TO SCHOOL. They’re still learning!!

It does not make them entitled to acknowledge personal accomplishments along the way to big successes or no success at all. 

“There comes a day in every man’s life — and it’s a hard day but there comes a day — when he realizes he’s never going to play professional baseball.”

~Josh Lyman, The West Wing

The guy down the hall at your office who watches British comedies Netflix all day and then writes reports about his overwhelming work load is not the same thing as a kid who hasn’t yet mastered the hand-eye coordination of making contact with a ball and bat. Stop acting like they are. And a participation trophy didn’t make him like that. He made himself like that.

So when these kids who have tried their best (whatever that looks like) come to the end of a season, if the people running the league want to give them a certificate, a ribbon, a trophy or something to acknowledge that they completed year/season/camp, fine. It’s a way to mark the time.

When the vast majority of these kids realize that sports is not going to be their thing, hopefully they will be left with some lessons on work ethic, being part of a team, staying active, setting goals and trying your best. Beyond that, I hope they have memories of having fun. They’re games, for crying out loud.

And when they find their old plastic trophies in a box in the attic, I hope they laugh about the time their friend did that thing or the odd way that one coach yelled or some other memory. Because it was something they did before they used the lessons they learned in kids’ sports to go on to do what they were meant to do.

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4 thoughts on “Stop freaking out about participation trophies

  1. Very well said. My son played on a baseball team this summer, not a travel team, just one of the summer league teams in our town. He’s 9 and all we wanted was for him to have a good time and hopefully learn and get a little better. Unfortunately, his coach didn’t feel the same way. He was there to win games. So my son and one other little boy sat the bench more times than he was on the field. My son wasn’t good enough for this coach, even when we were losing 17-1 and it was his turn to bat, the coach put in a kid who was a better hitter. After about the 5th game, on the way home my son asked why he wasn’t getting to play. How do you answer that? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the type of mother who wants her kid on the field every inning, every game. I’m all for learning how to sit the bench. But when 2 games passed and my son never touched the field, my heart broke for him. Now he’s not sure he wants to play next year, or any of the other team sports we’ve suggested he try this fall. I just wish more parents would stop getting so caught up that they don’t see the big picture. It’s not always about winning when they’re young, it’s about teaching them the game. To help them realize whether or not they want to continue playing or that it’s just not for them. Quit trying to live vicariously through your kids and let them be kids.

  2. I played baseball all through childhood and I loved it. I don’t remember getting trophies each year, but I do remember one trophy that was a baseball glove that held a baseball that the whole team signed. It wasn’t any kind of hollow “you are special just because you exist” trophy, it was just a nice little keepsake to remember that team.

    Lindsey, I really hate to hear about your experience with your son’s team. It’s unconscionable for me as a coach to see kids on other teams sit on the bench for a whole game or barely play in the game. I hate to see coaches spending whole practices on a small number of players while neglecting the rest of the team. Kids don’t learn anything that way, and parents feel like they are wasting their time and money for something that’s unfulfilling to their child.

    I hope you won’t give up on organized sports for your son. If nothing else, he may remember this season’s experience when he’s a dad and want to be a better coach than that. He could give another kid a chance that he didn’t have. Another benefit: he may have a crappy boss someday and think, “well, I survived having a terrible coach back then, and I’ll get through this, too!”

  3. Mark, don’t worry, my fiance was a high school basketball coach, he’s in his first year as a high school principle now. So I do understand, the whole you can’t play every player every game for the entire game. It was the 2nd one in a row that got me. We as parents won’t give up on team sports. My son however may be a different story. He’s being reluctant to try anything else. But we’re working on that. And you’re right. It could very well be God will use this experience to help him deal with another bad experience one day.

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