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.


What is “Old School”

Something I have been hearing a lot, in teaching and coaching, is people referencing being “old school” in their approach. This got me thinking about what the term “old school” means. Essentially there are two things at play here; the first is the attitude of hard work being the key element in success. By this definition I absolutely subscribe to the old school mentality.

But most often the thought process behind old school seems to follow a different pattern. People who call them old school seem to have several strongly held beliefs about how students should act, think, and be controlled. Old school people seem to think all children should do whatever they are told by an adult, no questions asked. Old school people think the wold is black and white and everything falls into these categories, they don’t allow for the grey areas in life. Because of this philosophy they are not flexible, they don’t account for individual differences, and they come off as grumpy and mean most of the time.

Old school people yell a lot, maybe kids “listened better” a generation ago when they got yelled at but did they really learn anything? How to be compliant maybe but do we really want a world of just compliant kids?  I would argue that we want a world of kids who are willing to question things, if kids are questioning they are seeking a deeper understanding. They want a rational for why things should happen, that is teaching and learning.

Old school people seem to be demanding in ways they wouldn’t accept for themselves. Their rules seem to follow a pattern of do as I say and not as I do, at best a terrible way to model things. If you as a coach or a teacher don’t hold yourself to a higher standard, or at minimum the same standard, how do you expect someone to buy into what you are wanting them to do?

Old school people seem to be terribly inflexible. They think students fall into a few categories and either refuse to or can’t comprehend the idea that students are unique and have unique circumstances that factor into how they act and why they act that way. Old school people seem unable or unwilling to take other viewpoints into account. Again, we are back to the black and white perspective of life, there is always grey area that has to be considered. The idea of fair isn’t always equal and equal isn’t always far doesn’t register with people who subscribe to this mentality. Because of this they are unable to reach a large portions of the population who don’t fit the “mold” they believe students should fall into.

I believe there are several other categories that could be discussed here but this is something to start the conversation.


“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

? Michelangelo

I love this quote because it works on a personal level as well as an expectation for students and athletes. It is hard to explain to kids that it’s ok to fail, because generally in doing so we become better. One big thing I always tried to convey to my wrestlers is that losses are only bad if we don’t learn anything from them. The same is true for falling short on goals, but if our goals are set high and we fall just short you can look back and see that you have made a lot of progress.

One thing I have been reading a lot about online revolves around teaching students that it’s ok to fail, as long as they can work to recover. I read this quote from Todd Whitaker – “My teacher thought I was smarter than I actually was. So I was.” It got me thinking about students and athletes who achieve above their level. You never see the people around them telling them they won’t achieve something. If telling a kid they can succeed at a higher level in sports motivates them to do better, why wouldn’t that also be true in the classroom?

We all know this is easier said than done, we live in a time where it seems like students subscribe to the Homer Simpson way of thinking, “Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.” and “If something’s hard to do, then it’s not worth doing.” Many kids subscribe to this way of thinking because they are legitimately afraid that they will work hard and fail and failing at something is one of the worst things that can happen. So we have to work on changing the culture that surrounds failing. Setting low expectations allows students to “succeed” but achieve little. I once heard legendary wrestling coach Dan Gable talk to reporters about how he would approach coaching against Cael Sanderson in college. Some background on Cael, he is the only four time undefeated NCAA wrestling champion in history. Coach Gable’s thought process was fairly simple but hugely profound; he talked about finding someone who would accept the challenge of being the one who would knock off Sanderson. Knowing this would be a lofty goal they would have to push themselves tremendously for an entire year and in the end if they met Sanderson in the finals of the NCAA and lost they would still have accomplished being an NCAA runner up. They would have failed in their ultimate goal but who could argue with the results, could we really call an NCAA finalist a failure?

The take away for me is: Set your goals high, as high as rationally possible, and in the end look back on how far you have come and all that you have succeeded in. Can you really call yourself a failure?