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In Defense of the Participation Trophy

I can already feel the angry mob forming as I type out the title. It seems that people these days have very strong opinions about the participation trophy. Myself? I go back and forth on this debate. I do like a participation trophy—but only up to a certain age. Maybe 10 or 12? For little kids, I really think a participation trophy is great!

I started playing softball when I was in the first grade. Was it the allure of trying to stop a ball from hitting me in the face that drew me to the sport? Sadly, no. What made me want to play softball then? The sales pitch of a nice young man who came to my school from the local softball program. He explained the sport of softball to us. He vividly described what we would be doing, but the line that hooked me? “And at the end of the season, you will get a trophy.”

A trophy! My little first grade mind could think of nothing else except getting that trophy. My dad had a couple of his youth football trophies at our house, and I wanted a trophy like my dad. So I begged my parents to let me play. And because they are awesome, they signed me up for softball.

The trophy initially got me into softball, but the game kept me there. I loved it! While not the star of the team, I was pretty good. And it was fun! In fact, it was so much fun that I played all the way through high school. I made some great friends and have great memories from playing regular season softball as well as travel softball. In my case, the participation trophy led me to a sport I loved.

But I don’t think loving the sport—or playing it well—is the only reason to receive a trophy. Sports can teach us about much more than being the best on the field. Playing teaches us how to work toward a goal. Participating shows us that practice is important. And we learn that not everything comes easy. Sports can teach us to stick with something we have committed to doing—even when we want to quit. 

My daughter wanted to play baseball with her brother last year, so we signed her up. We went to the first couple of practices with no problem. However, then she began to realize she did not actually like it. We dragged her, kicking and screaming, to practices and games. But this was our teaching moment for her: You finish what you start.

We had to have this pep talk with her multiple times over the baseball season. Many times I had to say “just finish this season, and we will never sign you up for baseball again,” or the more popular ” I promise I will sign you up for dance as soon as this is over.” So at the end of the season, when she received her trophy, it did not symbolize a championship or even her improved baseball skills.  For her it was a reward for keeping her commitment to the team, for not quitting mid-season, and learning that you honor your commitments.  She is young and probably will not remember much of her baseball season, but in the future we can point to that trophy and remind her of how she did not quit the team, she finished the season, and we can use that for future teaching moments.

While I agree that maybe after ages 10 or 12 the participation trophies should stop, I also do not think they are the great harm to society that others claim them to be.  I have seen so many people declare the participation trophy to be a contributing factor to  “a generation of entitled adults who think they deserve trophies for everything…”  I don’t know about you guys, but I know a lot of adults who are jerks entitled, and many of them never played sports.  They never received a trophy for completing a sport, so how do you explain their terrible behavior?  I think there are a lot more factors than the participation trophy contributing to jerkiness of most people.  But that is a post for another day.

So let us all take a breath, and calm down about the great trophy debate.  As long as we are teaching our kids how to behave, how to treat others with kindness, and how to work hard to reach their goals, I don’t think a trophy or two along the way will derail them.


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2 Responses to In Defense of the Participation Trophy

  1. kristencherry
    kristencherry May 4, 2017 at 9:05 am #

    I’ll be honest…I’m one of the people who complains about the participation trophy, because I work with high school kids who are still getting tons of rewards for pretty much just breathing; HOWEVER, I’m with you that it doesn’t hurt a thing at a young age. I participated in lots of sports and activities growing up, at some of which I was good enough to earn awards, but at most of which I was just slightly above average, so I didn’t earn many trophies. Most of my trophies were for participating when I was little, and I treasured those. When they’re little…bring on those plastic trophies! Love that pic. Your kids are precious. 🙂 Great piece.

    • Amy Smith
      Amy Smith May 4, 2017 at 5:35 pm #

      Thank you Kristen! I also meant to put in there that I’m constantly telling my kids “it’s not about you”…. so they get that enough. I am now coaching my son’s 7-8 yr old baseball team and it makes me an even bigger believer in the participation trophy at this age. We will not be the champions of our age group, but these kids have worked hard and have made some great improvements, they deserve the recognition. And my the good lord be with you as you work with High Schoolers…. I cannot even imagine…. 🙂

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