Kids Feel Entitled? Don’t Blame a Trophy

Is achievement in youth sports a zero-sum activity? Your answer to that question likely will determine whether you think it’s some kind of social catastrophe for kids to receive a small, cheap, but lovely little token at the end of a youth sports season.

Here’s another question: What is the purpose of youth sports?

I believe youth sports are meant to help kids learn to socialize. After-school and weekend activities like baseball, soccer, swimming and other sports introduce kids to different experiences, a vital component of growing up. Sports give kids the chance to identify their physical, mental and emotional limits and push past them as they grow.

Most of all, youth sports are supposed to be fun.

If you believe sports is only about identifying winners and losers, then frankly, you have the wrong idea about the purpose of youth sports.

This brings me to trophies. What are trophies? A lot has been made this week about Steelers player James Harrison’s public assertion that participation awards in youth sports rob his kids of the edge they need to succeed. So, he told the world on Instagram that he is returning his kids’ participation trophies.

The implication is that a trophy only has value if it is emblematic of success in children’s games.

Historically, trophies do symbolize achievement. They symbolize excellence. They are physical reminders of the hard work and dedication put in to perform well enough to defeat the competition. Well, guess what? Those days are over. The traditional purpose of trophies has changed, at least for youth sports.

Whereas they used to give out certificates for participation, they now give out trinkets. Today’s participation trophies might also be likened to the varsity letters awarded to older kids who play at the highest level of high school sports. It’s perfectly reasonable that as kids get older – say, high school age – and begin to separate out into “competitive” and “recreational” athletes, some physical award for championships is received.

In this century, though, trophies for participants in most youth sports leagues have come to represent something else – commitment to a purpose. That’s worth commemorating, worth recognizing, as kids move toward adolescence and adulthood.

Times Have Changed

That said, I personally don’t believe it matters if a kid gets a participation trophy at the end of the season. When I was a kid, we got certificates – none of which survived for long. Many youth leagues award participation trophies today instead of certificates. So what? It’s the same message, only instead of a piece of paper it’s a trophy.

Not everyone chooses to gracefully accept this change. They think trophies should still mean today what they meant 20 or 30 years ago. They refuse to recognize that times have changed in that regard. I get it. It’s difficult to let go of tradition.

The problem I have is with parents and others who think participation trophies are somehow harmful to kids. That’s simply ludicrous. Kids are smarter than that. They deserve more credit than that.

My older son has a shelf-full of participation trophies and medals from YMCA soccer and Cal Ripken baseball. He displays them because they remind him of the friends he made and the fun he had during those seasons. He worked hard and improved every season and I see no problem with him enjoying the trophies.

We didn’t make a big deal of it when he got them. There was no, “Oh, hey! Look at that! You did SO GREAT! You get a TROPHY! Hooray for you!” Trophies or medals were just part of the end-of-season ceremonies, along with ice cream and the occasional pizza party.

I’m seeing many arguments this week from parents who scoff at the notion of a participation trophy. Great. Fine. Those parents can do their thing. But if a kid gets a kick out of receiving a shiny little trinket along with his or her ice cream cone at the end of a youth sports season, why would you want to spoil that?

It has been my experience that kids who get these trophies at the end of seasons are more excited about the ice cream. I’ve seen kids cry at the end of a season not because they didn’t win, but because they were sad that they would no longer be playing a game they love with this particular group of friends.

That’s the beauty of youth sports. The games give kids something to care about.

Don’t Blame the Trophy

I get the sense that people who object to participation trophies see them as symbolic of or contributing to an “entitlement” mentality. They associate it with the dreaded concept of “political correctness,” or consider it a symbolic recognition that mediocrity is acceptable. They seem to believe that if a kid gets an “award” simply for showing up, he or she will always believe that’s how life should be.

That’s a specious conclusion, because recognition for participation in youth sports is nothing new.

It’s just that instead of a piece of paper with a hastily-scribbled or stamped signature of some unknown league official at the bottom, kids get something a lot cooler – a trophy, or occasionally a little medal on a ribbon. A trophy is nicer than a piece of paper, but these little figurines of plastic, metal and wood one day will be discarded along with all other childhood relics.

If a kid happens to look at that shiny trinket on the shelf as he or she grows up, who knows? It just might be a reminder of the fun, the camaraderie, and other lessons learned during that season. It might even make that kid smile. Nothing wrong with that.

One thing it won’t do – it won’t turn that kid into a spoiled, entitled brat who expects to get something for nothing. If that attitude exists, parents might want to look for the cause in the mirror, rather than the trophy case.

High Anxiety: the Price of Parental Expectations in Youth Sports?

An Ithaca College study published this month in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology confirms again that we, as parents, have absolutely no idea what we’re doing.

This is especially true, according to the study, for parents of kids aged 6-18 who participate in competitive swimming, tennis, gymnastics, bowling, wrestling, cross country and indoor track. Probably baseball, soccer, football, basketball and hockey, too, but they haven’t gotten around to observing team sports, so they don’t yet have a gauge on how stupid we are when our kids play those.

What egregious parenting gaff has been revealed now? How are we damaging our kids who play individual (and probably team) sports?

We place expectations upon our children. And that, apparently, is bad.

To be clear: I agree to an extent, but reject the notion that expectations are to be avoided in youth sports. I’ll explain why in a minute.

According to the study, parental expectations in youth sports are bad because the more ambitious the expectations, the greater the level of anxiety (pregame jitters) exhibited by the kid athletes. Similarly, the more parents wanted their kids to out-perform the other kids – in other words, the more the parents cared about who won – the less a kid was able to concentrate during the competition.

The reverse was true, too. The study found that the more ambitious the kids’ goals were, the higher the levels of anxiety experienced by the parents.

Hey, that’s fair. If we’re going to mess with our kids’ minds, they have every right to mess with ours right back.

Look, I’m all for managing expectations. I’m all for maintaining an even keel, especially when it comes to my kids and sports.

We enrolled our kids in YMCA soccer for years. Every player got a trophy. There were no standings. The score was kept informally, and no one knew (or cared) who the champion was at the end of the season.

There are parents and academics who believe that kind of athletic competition is a waste of time, that it defeats what they consider the purpose of kids participating in competitive sports. Their idea of meaningful participation in youth sports is that learning how to win a game at a young age can prepare their children to “win at life” as adults.

I wrote about my objection to that way of thinking about youth competitions in 2013 – After School Activities: Just Let Kids Be Kids. The bottom line for me was that the skills required to win a youth athletic competition only very loosely translate to the skills necessary to succeed in any profession except professional athlete and maybe coach.

Perhaps a kid can learn social skills as part of a team, but excelling on a field of play at age 8 is not a predictor of a corner office with a Fortune 500 company.

Still, now that our older son is well into his first season of competitive baseball, you’re darn right I have expectations. These expectations are fundamental. They are not negotiable.

  • I expect him to learn how to catch, throw, run, slide and swing a bat well enough that he won’t get hurt during the course of a game.
  • I expect him to pay attention to his coaches during practice, and that he’ll listen to me when we’re playing catch in the back yard.
  • I expect him to treat his teammates and his opponents with respect.
  • I expect him to learn the rules of the game, and I expect him to remember what he is supposed to be doing at all times on the baseball field – and if he doesn’t remember, I expect him to ask his coaches or more-experienced teammates.
  • I expect him to finish his homework before week-day practices and week-night games.
  • I expect him to have fun.

Now, I understand what the Ithaca report meant to condemn. There are parents who take sports too seriously, who live and die with every moment on the court, in the pool, on the mat or on the field. If pushed too far, that can be tough or even impossible for a kid to handle emotionally, and it’s not a good way to teach. It’s certainly no fun for anyone.

What I’m not wild about with this study is that it attempts to caution parents that any expectation has the potential to heighten the level of anxiety for a kid athlete. Furthermore, this is automatically assumed to be a bad thing.

I submit that parents should set reasonable expectations regarding a child’s participation in youth sports. Those expectations should be explained clearly and parents should be sure that their kid understands exactly how to live up to the expectations.

My expectations are reasonable, but I also acknowledge that trying to live up to all of those – including the part about having fun – might present a challenge for my sons. So be it. Growth happens when we confront our anxieties. We either overcome them or succumb to them. Either way, we learn.

Give a kid goals and watch him or her excel.

And that’s part of the job as parents, to present challenges for our kids to overcome. Overcoming those challenges might not put them on the path to a career as a high-powered executive, but it will help them learn how rewarding it can be to live up to – and sometimes exceed – expectations.





Swing, Fail, Swing Again


Stay focused. Stay relaxed. See the ball, hit the ball. Failure is inevitable. How you respond is up to you, and it can make all the difference.

We played ball out back on a makeshift miniature diamond I mowed into the high, early summer St. Augustine grass. The 8-year-old stepped to the foam-rubber home plate, batting lefty, knees bent just so, arms high but relaxed, head cocked toward the pitcher — me.

I wound up and tossed the ball softly in his direction.

It occurs to me that I was 17 when I became a sportswriter. Nine years older than this boy at the plate. I stepped into that life before my life had really begun, and had no real reason to regret it for two decades. But at the end, when it was over, it could only be classified as a failure.

The boy swung and missed. The swing was handsy, too much upper body, but there was purpose to it and his head and eyes were where they were supposed to be. That’s more than half the battle when you’re learning to hit a baseball. Watch the ball hit the bat. See it, hit it. He retrieved the ball and tossed it back.

How could a career as rewarding as mine be considered a failure? Because it didn’t end on my terms. Where did the fault lie? With me alone? With a newspaper industry in its dying throes? A combination? No matter. When I began that career, I intended for it to end many years from now, many games later, when I was too old to carry my computer bag into the press box. Didn’t happen that way. I failed.

I reminded him to focus on the ball, to keep his arms relaxed, to step toward me, pivot and turn his hips, throw his hands at the ball and explode into the swing. I pitched, he swung — and missed again.

Failure of that sort — mammoth, life-altering, frightening — can derail a man. You think you’re moving along toward a certain destination, surely, confidently. And then … it stops. Even if you sensed it coming, knew failure was inevitable, it stung. Worse, for the first time in your life, you didn’t know what came next.

The ball sailed over the shrub and the external AC unit as he swung and missed a second time. It was a bad pitch, a ball in any league, but at age 8 he still swings at anything and everything. He has not yet developed a discerning eye, a well-defined hitting zone. Every pitch is a promise. Every swing and miss is that promise broken. He dropped the bat and hustled after the ball again.

You didn’t know what came next, but you understood for the first time in your life that nothing was promised. Really understood that fact, not merely the theory. That there were dead ends. 

He found the ball in the high grass and tossed it back. Insects disturbed by the lawn mower began to crowd around us. He swatted at a bug in front of his face and stepped in for one last pitch from dad.

There are dead ends. Failure is inevitable. How you respond to that inevitability determines whether dead ends crack and split and branch off in promising new directions or stay dead ends. You choose your response. You choose to move forward. You choose. That’s what failure does for you, if you let it. If you let it.

This one came in under-handed, an acquiescence to physics and undeveloped, 8-year-old muscles. His eyes grew large as it arced toward the plate.

He stepped. He pivoted. He swung.