One of the most hotly debated subjects in the world of youth sports is participation trophies and their effect on children’s development. There’s plenty of anecdotes floating around from celebrities and professional athletes, but can those opinions really be called evidence? In light of the debate, some child psychologists and sports experts have performed studies and gleaned results you’ll definitely want to check out. Let’s examine both sides of the participation trophy debate.
Participation Trophies Are Bad
The biggest argument against participation trophies is that handing them out is a form of overprotection for our children. In other words, we hand out trophies to kids, no matter how poorly they performed, so they don’t feel bad about losing. Kids never get the chance to experience failure, or to learn from it. They grow up feeling entitled to rewards for simply showing up.
Dan Gould, a sports psychologist, stated in a 2017 Spartan News Room article that, “For rewards to work, they need to be earned. If you’re trying to increase a kid’s motivation, emphasize health or emphasize how fun it is to move or play ball.” Encouraging children through the everyday benefits of sports shows them that playing sports can be rewarding outside of receiving an actual award. They will gain internal motivation to show up and do well by learning how much enjoyment they can experience from playing with their friends.
Another argument against participation trophies is that they can backfire and cause kids to not try as hard because they will come to expect an award no matter what they do. This attitude can then affect the kids that truly do work hard and win, because they see their efforts being devalued as everyone around them receives the same award just for being on the field. It can also affect the kids receiving the participation trophies because, in some cases, the children don’t recognize participation trophies as true awards. In a study by Hilary Levey, one of the children she interviewed only counted the trophies in his collection that represented a placeholder (1st, 2nd, or 3rd), not just for participation.
To recap, the “participation trophies are bad” side of the debate states that participation trophies can stunt our children’s internal motivation, devalue the true winners in a competition, and are overall a symptom of today’s overprotective parenting standards. What does the other side have to say?
Participation Trophies Are Good
The best defense of participation trophies is the evidence in child psychology that reveals the overwhelming benefits of positive reinforcement, especially in younger children. Giving children a reward for their efforts is great, because it shows them the value of being present, working hard, and contributing to a team. They are shown how good it is to be reliable, and how important the effort of every person is, no matter if it leads to a victory or a loss.
Kenneth Barish, a psychology professor at Weill Medical College, states that, “The idea of giving trophies only to the winners doesn’t emphasize enough of the other values that are important.” Ultimately, playing sports isn’t just about being the best of the best. It’s about learning the importance of an active lifestyle, developing social skills by befriending and working with other people, and learning a new, really fun game that could turn into a lifelong interest. Using participation trophies early on to give children a token of the good times and hard work they put into a season will only help drive those points home.
As for the argument that participation trophies spoil our kids, educational theorist Alfie Kohn points out that, “We’re left wondering why it would help to be brought down to Earth even before one had the chance to soar.” In other words, why beat down someone who has never experienced victory or praise for hard work in the first place?
In fact, rewarding kids only for the outcome of their actions rather than the process that got them there can lead them to cut corners in the future. In a study by Cornell University, children were given a test and then either praised for being smart or for working hard. Later, the two groups were offered the choice between an easy test or one that was “more difficult but presented an opportunity to learn.” 67% of the kids called “smart” chose the easier test while 92% of the kids praised for working hard chose the more difficult one. Rather than teaching kids a black-and-white dynamic of winning vs. losing, participation trophies can help show kids that trying new things, even if you might not be good at them, can teach you far more than only doing things you know you can win.
The “participation trophies are good” side of the argument, in simplest terms, states that rewarding kids for their efforts at a young age can have lasting, positive effects on their development. They teach our kids that it’s important to try new things and do your part as a member of a team.
What's The Verdict?
That much is up to you as a coach, or as a parent. One thing we can say for certain is that, in participation trophy studies from both sides of the argument, such trophies lose their effectiveness as kids get older. Around the ages of 8-12 is when kids start to have mixed feelings about participation trophies; by this time they understand how to play the game and that the primary objective is to help your team win. When they see everyone, losers included, receiving trophies, it can leave a kids feeling frustrated.
For the little ones who are just starting out, however, participation trophies can work wonders. Youth sports are probably the first time kids have had the opportunity to earn a trophy, and rewarding them for their efforts helps build upon their excitement for the game. It also encourages them to return to the team next season. The most important takeaway is that participation trophies should be used to reward their hard work, dedication, and positive attitude as a player.
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