The Participation Trophy Controversy: Problem or Progress?

Participation trophies, the small awards usually granted to children after completing a youth sports season, are a matter of heated debate. Many are quite vocal in opposing the practice, viewing it as detrimental to youth development. In some cases, participation trophies have even become symbolic of a wider discontentment toward younger generations’ attitudes.

Significant evidence also points to the potential value of rewarding youth sport participation. Effort awards like these emphasize the importance of honing basic skills and being a good teammate.

Both sides want what they believe is best for the kids’ growth and development. But that leaves the question: Do participation trophies help more than they hurt? And crucially, how do members of the so-called “participation trophy generation” feel about it?

The Case Against Participation Trophies

Critics of participation trophies often describe them as an award for “just showing up.” Far from the days when athletics encouraged merit and achievement, these trophies have produced generations of children (and now adults) who believe that mere attendance is worthy of praise.

The biggest complaint is that participation trophies discourage hard work and diminish competition. 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.

Additionally, some fear that young children who learn to expect a participation award can fail to develop core fundamentals like teamwork and good sportsmanship. They believe 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.

For many, this issue extends far beyond youth athletics. 

Participation trophies have become a far-reaching symbol of entitlement and laziness among the younger generations. The phrase “participation trophy generation” is a common pejorative when dismissing the concerns and choices of younger people as lazy or self-indulgent.

The Defense of Participation Trophies

While it may not always be quite as vocal, there is significant support for using participation trophies in youth recreation.

One of the simplest arguments is that kids are smart. They know the difference between winning and losing and, likewise, between an effort award and a championship medal. 

There is no clear evidence that being rewarded for participation makes kids less competitive or reduces their desire to win.

However, there is evidence that these trophies increase engagement in youth sports leagues. Children who receive a trophy often find more motivation to join in on the many other benefits of playing a sport.

Encouraging Progress and Chasing 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, hone new skills and focus, develop self-control, and make new friends among their teammates.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Even in kids’ sports, participants must face inclement weather, volunteer coaches chewing them out, and pushing their physical limits. Participation trophies are just one tool to help kids persist through those challenges and enrich themselves.

Kids gain many benefits from playing youth soccer, volleyball, lacrosse, or any other sport. The potential reward of a major win is only one of them. Therefore, win or lose, it is imperative to encourage our kids to keep going.

Participation trophies don’t take away the motivation to pursue growth, nor do they tarnish the luster of competitive achievements. On the contrary, they keep kids involved and increase the chances of even bigger prizes from future championships and tournaments.

A competitive spirit is a great thing. The desire to win pushes kids to try harder and learn more as they go. But with all the other great reasons for kids to play sports, any encouragement we can give them will pay dividends.

What Psychology Says About Participation Trophies

We know both sides of the argument, but what does the actual psychological evidence say about participation trophies

Let’s consider some of the research and evidence behind both sides of the issue and also take a moment to hear from the participation trophy generation themselves.

The Pandora’s Box Effect

There is a non-traditional version of the myth of Pandora’s Box that perfectly illustrates part of the problem with participation trophies.

In this version of the story, Zeus gifted the eponymous box to Pandora’s parents. He then instructed them to take anything they didn’t want their precious daughter to experience and place it in the box. So, naturally, they filled the box with everything from scary animals and thorny plants to abstract concepts like hunger and war. When an older Pandora inevitably opened the box, she was flooded with everything bad in the world. It completely overwhelmed her, as 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 harms children’s growth and development.

Children learn and build essential tools by taking risks, facing decisions, and making mistakes. Unfortunately, overly sheltered children show a demonstrable lack of these skills, so it’s crucial to be careful with this type of sheltering environment.

Teaching a Growth Mindset

Dr. Carol Dweck has studied what motivates people and helps them grow for decades. One of her key findings is an idea that parents, educators, therapists, and self-help writers alike have not been able to let go of since she first introduced it: the growth mindset.

According to Dweck, 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 or are not good at. On the other hand, someone with a growth mindset finds progress inherently rewarding and doesn’t view their abilities as “fixed.”

The research decisively shows that 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 than those with a fixed mindset.

What does this mean for participation trophies?

If we are giving our young athletes encouragement to work hard and keep learning, then participation trophies are a tool we can use to bolster a growth mindset and 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 encourage a fixed mindset and ultimately be harmful to all participants.

A Look at the Participation Trophy Generation

The debate around participation trophies often leaves little room for those most directly affected: the kids and adults who have grown up receiving them. 

The participation trophy generation is a large cohort, as the practice has been commonplace for over 30 years. Millennials, the earliest members of the participation trophy generation, have long since graduated from youth sports and are all now of post-college working age. As such, they are the best example of the long-term effects of rewarding participation.

There is some evidence that participation trophies are a driving factor behind millennials working more hours year-round, and taking less vacation, than the generations that preceded them. Rather than making them entitled to recognition, as many assume, the practice appears to have made many of them chronically afraid of underachieving.

Little-league recognition has led to adverse psychological effects in some, but not in the way some accuse it of doing. For many, the early-life emphasis on measurable, recordable successes has led to chronic perfectionism later in life. Heavily rewarding children may not make them lazy, but it does send some the message that their worth derives from a continuously flowing stream of accolades.

The Verdict on Participation Trophies

Participation trophies may not be the root of all evil that some like to cast them as. Rather than a surefire road to entitled apathy, they can be a powerful tool in encouraging effort and progress. But when poorly executed, these awards come at a cost.

When participation trophies become a vehicle for sheltering kids from uncomfortable circumstances, it can harm their thinking and emotions. When parents teach their kids that winning is all that matters and trophies are the center of that, those kids can grow up with shaky self-esteem, unsustainably reliant on continuous victories.

As long as well-meaning parents, coaches, and caregivers encourage effort and the pursuit of victory, they create an environment where kids can thrive. “Just showing up” is not such a bad thing when it leads to healthy development and goal-focused behavior. As long as we make room to celebrate both participation and achievement as core values, there’s no harm in having a trophy for each.

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Hey, I’m Sam. I created Smarter and Harder to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

6 thoughts on “The Participation Trophy Controversy: Problem or Progress?”

  1. I agree. I think participation trophies have a time and place. When kids are just starting to get into activities and they earn some accolade, that is good. It hopefully gets them to engage further and try harder.

    But kids aren’t stupid either – they know they didn’t win the Championship even at 3 and 4 years old, but it still means something to them.

    My kids play i9 sports and we give out medals based on sportsmanship values of the week and the kid each week who oozes that value. My kids love it and hopefully are learning some lessons along the way.

    Later on, we’ll move them into other leagues that are more serious if they so desire, but for now, these trophies are helping, not hurting IMO.

    • Exactly! Saying “good job for your hard work” doesn’t mean “good job, you are the best, stop trying.” Let’s give kids more credit for their ability to distinguish.

      I like that model, I have heard of a number of coaches and organizations that do things like that, make it really granular and reward specific behaviors or attitudes. As I see it, those things all fuel growth and later successes in a more impactful way than the simple sting of defeat.

  2. This is so well-said! I am glad you pointed out something that the critics of participation trophies often skip over: kids, even very young ones, are smart enough to comprehend the difference between a trophy for “trying” and a trophy for “winning.” As a millennial who grew up receiving one or two participation trophies of my own, I never felt those indicated my team had “won” the game. And when you aren’t the best player or strongest team, getting some recognition for putting work in and trying hard anyway feels good. When you hear people call it a trophy “just for showing up” they say it with disgust, as if that’s a terrible thing to get a trophy for. But when it comes to achieving most great things, isn’t half the battle “just showing up” (and continuing to show up day after day)?

    • Thank you! Kids are very good at telling the difference between things. Also, not for nothing but the trophies themselves were quite different in my experience. Participation trophies, though neat, were small and simple. Trophies for winning some big tournament were always much grander and more exciting.

      And I love your last point. I find it hard to swallow that celebrating “just showing up” is a bad thing when we hear motivators, self-help personalities, and success stories of all sorts shouting from the rooftops that “just showing up” is at least 80% of the battle.

  3. Loved this piece. I’ve missed your work.
    This topic often entered my mind as an educator. I think you and your readers make a good point that kids can discern the difference between being the strongest at the particular skill and a strong participant. That’s what makes teams strong. The camaraderie and the feeling of inclusiveness can be even more rewarding than individual successes. To me, the key seems to be helping children understand the difference.
    I do think we have to help young ones face small conflicts and learn that they usually have choices in how they deal with them. That promotes growth and healthy development.
    Glad to have you back, Sam!

    • Glad to be back 🙂

      And yes, absolutely! It’s important for the young ones (and adults) to be able to face some conflicts head on from time to time. Each time, it pushes us to build new tools (or at the very least, resilience) and improve our ability to navigate challenges. Very cool point about camaraderie, too. I’d say for most of us, that tends to prove a much more important strength later in life than kicking goals!


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