Like many kids, I was quite a handful growing up. As a result, I found myself in a mix of youth sports leagues, day camps, and other youth programs to keep me busy. At the end of a season or program, some of these activities would reward me with a participation trophy.
Imagine my surprise, then, to grow up and learn of the myriad horrors that participation trophies had wrought. These little four-inch slabs of engraved granite with little golden sports children on top had apparently dashed my prospects in life, along with those of many other millennials.
The question on my mind today is, what exactly is the problem with participation trophies? Why do they make people so mad, and is that anger justified? Are these awards a celebration of growth or a severe handicap to it? Let’s take a look.
The Case Against Participation Trophies
Critics of participation trophies, of which there are many, describe them as an award for “just showing up.” Far from the days when athletics encouraged merit and achievement, participation trophies have produced generations of children (and now adults) who believe that mere attendance is worthy of praise.
The adverse effects that critics tie to this phenomenon are in no short supply.
Perhaps the biggest complaint is that participation trophies discourage hard work. It is a common refrain that when everyone gets medals and awards for showing up, kids stop playing to win. Similarly, for those who do win, it is a hollow victory. Thanks to participation trophies, there is no discernible difference between winning and losing.
What’s more, young children who learn to expect a sports participation award can fail to develop core fundamentals like teamwork and good sportsmanship. Our kids need the sharp edge of defeat in competitive sports to inspire and reinforce their growth.
Some parents, including former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, have gone so far as to take participation trophies away from their children.
Of course, this issue extends far beyond youth athletics.
Participation trophies have become a far-reaching symbol, in particular for millennial entitlement. Any debate with your uncle about workers’ rights, equality across racial and gender divides, or any of today’s shifting cultural landscapes is likely to yield at least one solid reference to the so-called “participation trophy generation.”
A Case in Favor of Participation Trophies
In a moment, we’ll look at what science has to say about participation trophies. But first, I’d like to temper some of the anecdotal critiques with a bit of my own experience.
As I mentioned earlier, I played a mixture of youth sports. After completing some of these, I would receive a trophy or a medal. I loved my participation trophies and kept them clean on a nice little shelf in my bedroom.
Did these trophies give me the idea that I was a champion athlete who had reached my peak and had no reason left to improve? Of course not. But they still meant something to me.
I knew that I was trash at youth soccer, little league baseball, golf, even tennis. I knew that I usually did poorly and played for teams with poor standings. But I also knew that there was value in my showing up, putting the work in, and trying to improve.
Process, Progress, and Product
There are many great reasons for kids to play team sports, not necessarily just to get a trophy. An early childhood sports program can help kids to stay healthy, practice good behavior, develop self-control, and make new friends among their teammates.
But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Even in kids’ sports, you have to deal with inclement weather, volunteer coaches chewing you out, and pushing your physical limits. Participation trophies are just one tool to help kids develop discipline and persist through those challenges.
In my case, that motivator was one of many reasons I showed up and did the work, even when I didn’t want to.
In time, that work paid off. In my later childhood and teens, I went on to win championship trophies, varsity letters, academic awards, and accolades in the arts.
Participation trophies never took away my motivation to pursue growth, nor did they tarnish the luster of these later achievements. On the contrary, I cherished each of those victories and awards. I placed them right up on the shelf next to my participation trophies.
I knew the difference between when I was receiving encouragement for my effort and when I was celebrating a major win. This is something every child can process. One feeling doesn’t make the other meaningless.
What Psychology Says About Participation Trophies
While stories and opinions may make for fun discussion, they rarely take us far toward resolving an issue. If we want to get to the bottom of this, we need to examine what psychology says about participation trophies.
Admittedly, scholarly resources here are a little thin. However, there are pieces of this puzzle that have undergone extensive study. Together, these pieces can create an aggregate picture of the impact participation trophies are having on our young boys and girls.
The Pandora’s Box Effect
I once heard a version of the myth of Pandora’s box that I have always loved. In this non-traditional variant, rather than a cruel taunt from the gods, Pandora’s eponymous box was a gift bestowed upon her parents.
The giver (presumably Zeus) instructed Pandora’s parents to take anything they didn’t want their precious daughter to experience and place it in the box. So, naturally, they put just about everything in the box, from scary animals and thorny plants to abstract concepts like hunger and war. When an older Pandora inevitably opened the box (as she always does), she was flooded with everything bad in the world. It completely overwhelmed her. She was wildly unprepared for it.
This Pandora’s Box effect is at the heart of what people fear in participation trophies. Essentially, many parents worry that this effort to protect children from the pain of defeat leaves them unprepared for the world’s harsh realities.
It’s a valid concern. Numerous studies have demonstrated that overprotective parenting is dangerous to children’s growth and development.
Taking risks, facing decisions, and making mistakes are part of how children learn and build essential tools. Overly sheltered children show a demonstrable lack of these skills.
The question remains whether handing out participation trophies meet the definition of this type of over-protective raising of children.
Teaching a Growth Mindset
It is nigh impossible to have a credible discussion on the psychological impact of participation trophies without a close look at the work of psychologist Carol Dweck.
Dr. Dweck has studied what motivates people and helps them grow for decades. In her bestselling book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” she introduced an idea that parents, educators, therapists, and self-help writers alike have not been able to let go of since: the growth mindset.
The core idea is simple. A person can have either a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. Someone with a fixed mindset focuses mainly on inherent skills and talents, the things they simply are and are not good at. On the other hand, someone with a growth mindset finds progress inherently rewarding rather than viewing their abilities as “fixed.”
Dweck’s body of work decisively shows that both adults and children with a growth mindset see greater returns across many layers of life. For example, they achieve better academic performance, professional achievement, and higher self-esteem and resilience than those with a fixed mindset.
What does this mean for our participation trophies?
If we are trying to give our young athletes encouragement to work hard and keep learning, then participation trophies are a tool we can use to set them up for lifelong success. However, if the sole focus is on who’s a winner and who’s a loser, then a participation trophy and a championship trophy alike can be harmful to all participants.
The Verdict: Encouragement or Entitlement?
Participation trophies have the potential — as a celebration of effort, growth, and progress — to motivate school-age children as well as adults for future success. They are a great way to teach children to keep showing up to do the work.
At the same time, well-meaning parents and coaches can inadvertently turn awards like these into Pandora’s box. If the only intention is to make our children feel good and protect them from the discomfort of defeat, we could be stymying child development.
For parents and caregivers, it primarily comes down to what you are praising and what kind of conversations you are having around growth, trophy or no trophy. For the rest of us, a healthy mindset around our personal development and accomplishments is one of those invaluable life skills that will one day enable us to take on anything.