In Defense of “Participation Trophies”

So-called “Participation Awards” are getting a lot of flak these days.  When the subject is pilloried in mainstream advertising, you know a chord has been struck.  However, I firmly believe that there is a valuable place in what we are trying to teach kids.  But, only if we use it for the right purpose.

Keeping score, tournaments, championships, and even the nature of competition itself are all about one thing: are you better than your opponent(s) at something?  You don’t have to be the best ever.  You don’t have to be the best today.  You don’t even have to be as good as you were last week.  Just as long as you are better than your opponent today, you will win.  You will succeed.  You will get the trophy.

However, if that is all we are trying to teach kids with our sports programs, we have missed the most valuable part of learning to play a sport by a million miles.  Learning to play a sport is not about being better than our opponent on any given day.

Yes, that’s what we hand out championship trophies for, and that’s absolutely okay.  But if that is our only focus in whatever sports season is going on, we’re wasting a great opportunity.

The so-called “Participation Trophies” aren’t about making sure nobody’s feelings are hurt, and they aren’t about making everyone feel equal (even when it’s obvious that they are not).  Or at least they shouldn’t be.  Participation Awards are about recognizing that every individual athlete who participated to the best of their ability got better at something.

The “Participation Trophy” by itself does nothing.  It might even do more harm than good, if kids get the notion that they don’t have to put forth any effort at all, and they will get the same award everyone else gets.  If that’s how you are awarding “Participation Trophies” in your team or league, fix it!  “Participation trophies” are meaningful when they are accompanied by specific, meaningful feedback about how the athlete has improved, how they have gotten better during the course of the season.

I can already hear someone protesting, “But, you don’t need to get a trophy for that!”  And you’re right.  You don’t need to get a trophy for that.  The Lombardi Trophy or the Stanley Cup don’t really make winning the NFL or NHL championship any greater of an accomplishment either, but I can’t imagine a championship game ending without the winning team hoisting that trophy.

So, why is it important?  The trophy is important because it is a symbol.  It is a symbol of the fact that this individual or this team to which the trophy has been awarded was better than their competition at the required moment.

There is nothing wrong with awarding symbols to individuals (in athletic competition or otherwise) for improving their skills, for being better than they were a year ago, a month ago, a week ago, rather than just being better than their opponent.

Should we give out participation trophies?  Absolutely.  But, every kid who receives one should understand why they got one.  It isn’t just because they were present for all or most or some of the games and practices.  And it isn’t to keep them from having hurt feelings that someone else got a trophy and they didn’t.  And it is absolutely not to give mom and/or dad the illusion of their little one being a superstar prodigy.

Try this scenario on for size.  At an end-of-year team celebration for a youth basketball league, every player on the team was due to receive a trophy.  A participation trophy.  The object of so much scorn and scoffing.  But, in this case, rather than just handing the trophies out and giving a generic “good job, everyone,” the coach took a few seconds to tell everyone something specific about how that student had improved during the season.  It was meaningful for each of the students, it was meaningful for the parents, and it was meaningful for the coach to go through the process of assessing each student’s skill development during the season.  These were not glib, general statements.  “When Bobby started this season, he couldn’t dribble a basketball with his left hand.  Now, he is able to dribble with his left, and switch hands while dribbling, and that has helped him do better at getting closer to the basket and scoring!”  Is Bobby the best left-hand dribbler out there?  No.  Did Bobby win a championship?  No.  But Bobby did something important.  Bobby worked hard to get better at something, and there is no harm in identifying and acknowledging that accomplishment.

For participation trophies to have any meaning, a coach (or teacher, etc.) must be constantly evaluating students’ skills and development, providing support and direction when needed.  Otherwise, participation trophies become just an equally-distributed expense with no impact.  A symbol, with no substance.



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