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.