The Youth Sports Trophy Culture: It’s Not About Trophies It’s About Values

Close shoot of black happy smiling little boy holding prize cup with other kids cheering on the back

Are Participation Trophies Sending The Wrong Message To Our Children?

This past weekend one of my clients sent me an article and asked what I thought about Pittsburg Steeler Linebacker James Harrison having his children (ages 8, 6) return the “participation trophies” they received from one of their sports teams. Harrison posted the following on Instagram:

“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 two 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.”

As former college basketball player and someone who coaches fathers on how to perform at their highest level in life and business, my initial reaction was total support of the message. I never received a participation trophy growing up and was taught the same core values Mr. Harrison was teaching: Everything in life and sports should be earned. My default response was to return to my own experience as an athlete who worked his butt off to eventually earn a college scholarship. In large part because of my experiences growing up, I’ve come to realize how important it is to work hard, experience defeat and be able to learn and improve from losses and disappointments. These are lessons we can take into our everyday life as a parent, business owner, or someone trying to reach their full potential. It’s not defeat that defines us in life but how we react to it that creates our success moving forward. All important lessons I believe Mr. Harrison’s statement supports.

On the other side of the argument are those  believe participation trophies serve as source of pride and a self-esteem booster for kids. That children who participate and work their tails off all year need to be rewarded for finishing the season and not giving up on their team. This reward anchors a child’s experience and encourages them to show up and contribute to the collective.

A 2014 Reason-Rupe poll showed that the more successful adults are in life, the less likely they are to be in favor of the participation trophies. The poll found that the desire to withhold participation trophies increased with income, age, and education. For example, 55 percent of those making less than $30,000 a year were in favor of participation trophies, while only 23 percent of those at the top earners ($110,000 +) wanted trophies for all. It really isn’t about trophies, which by the way has skyrocketed into a 3 billion dollar a year business. The issue is really about instilling values and life lessons in our children that they can take off the field into the world.

It is important that we all take a deeper look at this discussion and see why there has been such a spirited debate over whether participation awards for children are healthy or not. I know parents who sometimes struggle to identify the fine line between appropriate praise and overcompensating by praising everything their child does. Behind Mr. Harrison’s statement is the bigger issue of how to best support our children (emotionally, psychologically) and prepare them for success in life.

Here are questions to consider:

Are participation trophies a way to improve and support positive self-esteem in a child?

OR

Are these types of awards part of a bigger problem that creates entitled and unmotivated adults?

In order to create a meaningful discussion that goes beyond who is right and wrong, I wanted to explore several different perspectives and then offer a potential solution to the issue at hand:

The Issue At Hand

How can we best set our children up for success in life (socially, emotionally, psychologically, financially, spiritually, etc.)?

Different Perspectives

Over the weekend, I made some calls and asked this question:

Is James Harrison right? Are participation trophies sending the wrong message to our children?

My first calls were to the professional and college athletes I work with who are also parents. Next I asked some of the high-performing fathers (business owners, CEO’s) who said they were either average, below average or non-athletic growing up.

Finally, I went to the people who this debate affects the most, children. I asked my own children (ages 13, 17) as well as some of their friends what they thought about the debate over participation awards. There are far too many instances in today’s society where adults and experts create a discussion about our children and youth without including them. This was an important perspective and their responses may surprise you.

All three perspectives were important for me to integrate into what I already know from my experience in child development, parenting and human behavior.

Here is what I’ve learned from everyone’s comments:

The “Yes” Argument

Participation trophies creates a false sense of accomplishment

“I wanted to give my children all they wanted, all I hadn’t had. In so doing I may have deprived them of what they needed most: the grit and the tools, to take on the world and make their own way.” Harry Belefonte

The professional athlete’s I spoke with whole-heartedly agreed with Harrison’s perspective. One stated, “Great job Mr. Harrison for teaching the value of hard work and that nothing in life comes easy.” As a father, I also want to instill in my children the importance of creating good habits, working hard towards a goal and giving your best. I agree with Mr. Harrison that teaching children the importance of earning things in life through hard work is a very important life lesson.

These are the times in our life when the most profound transformations take place because of defeat. Defeat and experiencing losing is important for development and has a way of getting our attention. It allows us to look at our habits, work ethic and performance to see where we can improve. If you never experience losing and are rewarded for simply showing up you may never learn this lesson of perseverance.

What I’ve noticed from observing the high performers I work with, whether its sports or business, is a sense of never settling for mediocrity. Winners in life, business and sports always feel that there is more to do. If business exceeds expectations in the first quarter, they want to top that in the second quarter. If the team wins a championship, they are quickly focusing on repeating the following year. In many ways, there is never satisfaction because there is always a bigger milestone to achieve.

The “No” Argument

Participation trophies teach children the value of showing up

“Sometimes the bravest and most important thing you can do is just show up” Brene Brown

The lesson that may have been missed in all of this is the value of showing up. One of the CEO’s I spoke with had a different take on the message the trophy sends. “By not giving a child a trophy after a long hard season teaches children that there is no value in trying. As Woody Allen once said, “80 percent of life is showing up.”

As a father who has coached many of my children’s teams over the years, I understand the hard work, dedication and commitment that a children (and parents) make to attending practices and games. Advocates for participation trophies argue that sending a child home after a long season empty handed sends the message that there is no value in the attempt. Sports can be a microcosm of life and teaching children that it’s bigger than winning or losing is important. By earning participation trophies, children receive the message that being accountable, showing up and working hard means something. Some children won’t be superstars or be fortunate enough to be on winning teams, but that doesn’t mean they’re not embodying winning values.

What the kids are saying

“Participation is more than just showing up”

When I asked my 13-year-old son and the players on his AAU basketball team, I was expecting them to be opposed to the trophies. These very competitive kids are always looking to win the next game and tournament. To my surprise, most of them (9 out of 10) were in favor of the trophies. They told me that they understand the difference between MVP, Championships and Participation Trophies and there is room for them all. The players went on to say that working hard and being committed during the season should be rewarded. WOW! I was impressed.

So, I called my 17-year-old daughter to see if she would have another view. A few days earlier, I had moved her into her dorm room for her first year of college. She spent most of her life on dance teams that participated in recitals and competition. Her view was similar to that of my son’s team. She said, “participation is more than just showing up, it’s agreeing to work to be part of a team. Whether we win or lose, it doesn’t take away our effort.” She continued to say that a criteria has to be met to receive it though. Things like attending practice, working hard and being a good teammate. Children get it and fully understand the distinction between a first place trophy and a participation trophy. As they schooled me, I wondered to myself if it was the adults, who were making this more complicated than it needed to be.

It’s Not about Trophies It’s about Values

“The major value in life is not what we get. The major value in life is what we become”

Most people are either on one side or on the other of this debate with no wiggle room for common ground. Participation trophies are either GOOD or BAD.

There is common ground between both sides of this debate that can ultimately benefit our children. The commonality is that everyone wants the best for their children, but we often go about it different ways.

As a student of child development, I also have to point out the research of Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck who wrote a New York Times piece titled “Too much praise is not good for toddlers.” In her research, Dweck talks about the negative repercussions of praising children for everyday achievements. She doesn’t discourage praising kids altogether, but suggests focusing on how they approach difficult tasks, strategize and concentrate.

The adults may have missed what the the kids recognized all along: Participation is more than “just showing up.” Webster’s defines participation as “the state of being related to a larger whole.” Isn’t that a value we want to instill in our children? Teamwork, sacrifice, service and contributing to a greater good.

It reminded me of the college professor who on the first day of class announced, “You all start the year with A’s, and this is what you have to do to keep it.”

Maybe the answer is to place meaning and emphasis on values rather than a trophy. Sports can provide valuable life lessons to help our children develop into healthy adults:

1. Teamwork– Teamwork in sports fosters emotional and social development that can easily carry over to life. This translates in how well your children work with their teachers, classmates, relatives, and anyone else they may encounter in life.

2. Resilience- You will experience adversity in life but never give up. Everyone gets knocked down, but what’s important is how you respond.

3. Sportsmanship- Your character shouldn’t be determined by a win or loss. Show up in the world as the person you want to be.

4. Fun- Children do this much better than adults do. In sports and life, find what brings you joy. Follow your dreams and have fun with it.

5. Hard work- This is a valuable lesson that translates in all aspects of life.

6. Everyone has strengths- Teaching children to look for the strengths in other people is a great lesson in relationship building though connection and empathy.

7. Responsibility and Commitment- “No practice, No Play.” Sports help children understand the importance of following through with their commitment by attending practices and games. Being responsible for yourself and keeping your commitment to your teammates is a valuable life lesson.

So… Is James Harrison Right? Are participation trophies sending the wrong message to our children?

It depends… Trophies don’t send messages, PEOPLE do! 

Maybe we’ve been debating the wrong question and complicating the issue all along. Harrison’s points about earning things in life and dealing with adversity are great life lessons. I think it’s fair to challenge the second part of the statement “your best sometimes isn’t enough. When children give their best, it should be good enough.

Competition is at the heart of sports, and maybe trophies should be reserved for the winners, but everyone’s effort deserves to be acknowledged.

“The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday.”

Super Bowl: 3 Lessons in Leadership!

As Super Bowl XLIX approaches, what has been the major story line for you?

Deflate-gate? New commercials? Office pools? “I’m just here so I won’t get fined?”

All par for the course but if you look a little deeper you’ll find something else…

Lessons in leadership…

While growing up playing sports, coaches always stressed the connection between sports and leadership. As this years Super Bowl approaches it is easy to see the meaningful lessons in leadership exhibited by both teams. Win or lose, these two teams have positioned themselves as the best in class of their profession.

Here are three leadership lessons to pay attention to while you’re watching the game:

  1. Coaching develops talent – One could argue that the teams with the two best coaches in the NFL are in the Super Bowl. Talent development starts with good coaching. Great leaders have great coaches and mentors. If you are ready to take your performance to the next level, invest in a coach that can help you develop.
  2. Focus to finish- It takes vision and discipline to be a winner in sports and in life. Effective leaders follow their vision with a disciplined focus towards achieving a goal. Both teams had a vision of winning the “Big Game” and it was their discipline and focus that has put them in position to win. “A goal is a dream with a deadline.”
  3. Champions never give up– Seattle and New England both went through their share of adversity throughout the season. People were doubting if they would even make the playoffs. But they never gave up, and are now on the biggest stage of their profession. Determination and resoluteness is what allows leaders to remain motivated and to overcome whatever adversity, obstacles and barriers they encounter.

“Leaders aren’t born they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.”-Vince Lombardi, Hall of Fame NFL Coach

Enjoy the game!