This War on Participation Trophies is the Dumbest Possible War Going

This War on Participation Trophies is the Dumbest Possible War Going


This War on Participation Trophies is the Dumbest Possible War Going


My older neighbor came up to me a few weeks ago as I pulled into my driveway. I should note that we had not conversed basically at all, other than a wave hello, ever, so this isn’t part of some long running chit-chat. As I was unloading from a weekend baseball tournament, he proceeded to tell me about the problems with kids these days. That a majority of them are socialists, and that the reason was the damn participation trophies in sports. I kid you not.

Being a parent who spends way too much time at practices and games on a weekly basis, I tried to inform him that wasn’t my experience. I was trying to be polite, I didn’t want to embark on a point-by-point discussion of how idiotic that is.

The fact that somehow a ribbon, or pin, or medal given to a 7-year-old with the attention span of a small puppy has become some sort of political issue is baffling to me. That it has become some symbol upon which we draw dividing lines over whether one believes in the wussification of America or not, or an entitlement culture, is one that amazes me.

DeAngelo Williams was the latest to take to social media to promote how he won’t stand for participation bauble. (And our Jason McIntyre weighed in.) Last year, it was James Harrison taking a strong stand.

I guess I’m the Twitter jabroni.

First, let me say that this is not a rant against individual parenting choices. Quite honestly, when it comes to participation medals/pins/trophies/ribbons, I could personally take them or leave them. If you want to say they are kind of a waste of money and a cottage industry that provides little value, so be it. That would join them with so many other items we purchase to fill our lives with clutter. To me, they are like McDonald’s toys in a Happy Meal. (Congrats, here’s your participation award for eating lunch!) Reactions to them are similar as well–excitement like a puppy when seeing the shiny new object, soon to be relegated to a shelf or drawer and forgotten with 24 hours.

But let’s give kids a little more credit. In a study of why kids enjoyed playing youth sports, earning a trophy or medal came in 68th out of 81 options. It did finish ahead of taking photos. And that was for “earning” one, and didn’t differentiate between participation trophies. On the list of things that matter, both when it comes to why kids play sports and how it impacts them, it barely registers.

Little League sadness

So how did it come to be the “blogger in his mom’s basement” of symbols for entitlement and all of the problems with kids these days? Where every tired writer falls back on “[t]his is the generation of ninth-place “participation” ribbon recipients who post a picture of the sandwich they had for lunch on Facebook.”

My issue isn’t personal–keep them, reject them, whatever. It’s the grandstanding and politicizing. I mean, here’s DeAngelo Williams lecturing about why he did it in a Facebook video: “I for one feel that entitlement of kids started with us and needs to end with us.”

That’s actually a very true statement, but it is misguided when talking about participation ribbons. Entitlement does start with parents, but it is the modeling behavior shown to kids, and the interactions over time, and not one stinking ribbon. On the list of real-world things that could lead to entitlement, participation ribbons ranks about #9,997th.

When they ask for the X-Box and the newest game, do they get it right away, or do they have to show patience or work for it?

When you drop your kids off at school, do you pull up to the next open slot, or stop right in front of the door, showing them they are more important than everyone else and don’t have to walk that extra 15 feet?

Do you model to them how to cut in line, or be rude to people? When they do something wrong, do you make it go away or make them learn from it?

All these things are far more important than some damn piece of painted plastic. And taking away, or letting them keep those things after a season where they went to practice and games after school, doesn’t tell me one way or another whether you are a good parent.

So I don’t get this attack on participation medals. But there’s one thing implicit in the criticism of participation rewards as well–that winning should be the ultimate goal in youth sports. That’s an absurd notion at age 7, and still a costly one as players progress into teenagers. Is there anything wrong with winning? No, it’s fun to win. But there often can be conflicts between helping players get better, learn fundamentals, and doing things that help win today.

You can show how smart you are as a coach by devising tricks to take advantage of the fact that 10-year-olds don’t process things as fast as 24-year-olds. Those things may not help the players actually get better long-term.

You can throw only your best pitchers–but at the risk of both injuring them (and there is a growing epidemic of youth baseball arm injuries) and not developing other players who need reps to learn to pitch.

You can devise plays only for your best player at age 8, and not care about getting experiences for anyone else.

Some of my proudest moments in helping coach youth sports (non-parent category) are things that may have resulted in winning, but often were the product of hard work and resiliency by the kids and seeing the fruits of those efforts play out.

It’s seeing a first grader execute a pull-back in the middle of a soccer game, that was worked on in practice, or a pass attempt to a teammate, even if it didn’t work out.

It was in flag football, designing an offense and considering the skills of everyone, and having every boy on the team score at least one touchdown, when most teams had 2-3 that scored all of them. I guess I raised them to be entitled to think they could all play a role.

It was in basketball, when a big kid with raw skills executed a pump fake, up-and-under move for an and-one with perfect foot work, after we had spent several practices on post moves.

In baseball, it was seeing the player who made the final out with bases loaded and the tying run on third, encouraging him that he would get more chances and have success, and then see the exact same scenario come up in the same tournament and have him get the game winning line drive. It was working with a pitcher who couldn’t throw a strike and was falling all over the place, and seeing him put in the hard work and take the mound for the first time this last weekend and throw two scoreless innings with his grandfather watching.

Kids are smart. They play sports when it is fun, and when they are good at it, particularly as they get older and can express themselves. Medals don’t make them think they are better than they are or entice them to simply show up and not try and expect to be given things.

None of my best moments, nor the kids, is because of a trophy. And contrary to all these hot takes on participation trophies and the fall of Western Civilization, if more kids got positive interaction from coaches and parents, they would show the stereotypers the opposite of entitled behavior.

Even if we did throw in a medal at the end.

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