In Defense of the “Participation” Trophy

The participation trophy, the scourge of competitive world. There is a lot of negative press out there for the “participation” trophy and how we look at it shows that we really don’t understand the power it can have.

The argument against handing out prizes for kids who “didn’t accomplish or win anything” is generally that we are rewarding failure. We are teaching kids that they should get something no matter how little success they see for their efforts, “only winners get rewards.” But there are much more powerful lessons we could be teaching our kids with “participation” trophies if we could just get past the idea that if you don’t win you don’t deserve any reward.

First, kids often avoid failure because we have taught them that failure is the worst thing possible. This is bad parenting and bad coaching. By teaching kids that failure is so bad what kids are learning is; if you don’t think you can be successful you should quit or not even start. This is a mindset children develop out of seeing all the negative reactions from people when someone doesn’t win and it often cripples their motivation to work at something they are not good at from the start. We are teaching kids to only try at things you’re good at and encouraging them to stay away from things that are difficult.

This is a great TED talk about why we should be teaching our kids to fail

But, only teach your kids to fail if you want them to be successful. Because failure isn’t the opposite of success but rather its main ingredient.

A second thing we need to pay attention to is the frequency of kids who quit things. The increase in the propensity of kids quitting things seems to be directly associated with the idea of failure avoidance. Because we have taught kids that failure is unacceptable and it is their own fault we have indirectly encouraged kids to quit when things get tough. Because of the belief that there are no rewards for “losers” why would a child want to stick something out when they know they are going to end the season a “failure?”

So, how does the participation trophy help in these areas? Something we need to first do is stop calling them “participation” trophies and start referring to them as end of the season awards. You got this award, or trophy, because you ended the season with the rest of the team and didn’t quit.

When my son finished his first season of soccer he got a trophy. His team had a losing record, he only scored one goal, and he only got to play more than half of the quarters because kids didn’t show up to games on a regular basis. By all accounts this was a participation trophy but he was so excited to get a reward. He never missed practice, he showed up to the game that ended up being cancelled even though the coach and her son were the only other players who showed up that day, he tried his hardest every day and even practiced at home. He was given a trophy for not quitting and that is what I told him. He was rewarded for giving his best effort everyday and because he was recognized he will continue to do so.

Participation trophies cab teach kids that giving your best effort and not quitting are the most important things in life, because those are the ingredients that make winners in life. It’s all in how you frame it. If you call it a participation trophy and treat it as such that is all it will be. I call it a season completion trophy and tell my son he got it because he did his best and didn’t quit, he is 7 and that is what that trophy means to him.

David Taylor once commented that he got an award at the end of his first season of wrestling and that it was basically the award they give out to the kid who tries the hardest but gets pinned the most. But that award motivated him to keep trying because it was really the first recognition that he ever received in sports. Would David Taylor have put as much effort into his wrestling the next season if he didn’t get his “participation” award? By many people’s accounts he didn’t deserve it because he lost all the time, he was given an award for losing. But it meant something more to him, and his parents framed it as something more. David Taylor went on to become a 4x Ohio state high school champion, a 4x NCAA all american, 2x NCAA national champion, and 2x Hodge Trophy winner. One thing is certain, he didn’t do this because it was easy. But he was encouraged to keep trying, even given an award for not quitting.


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