Teaching Athletes the Value of Commitment, Without Devaluing the Win
tro·phy.’trōfē. noun. 1. a cup or other decorative object awarded as a prize for a victory or success.
Recently, the topic of participation trophies, the physical trophy awarded to youth athletes for participating in their sports program, league or organization, has been a topic of divisive debate. So the question: Do you believe participants should receive a trophy for simply participating?
There are defensible arguments on both sides, which I will highlight here. My answer, in case you wish to skip to the chase and not read the rest, is: Participation trophies are dependent on the core values behind the desire to award them, providing meaning to your definition of what participation, trophy, victory and success means.
Before I spoil you with my core values and definitions, let’s outline the positive arguments on both sides.
Arguments FOR Participation Trophies
- Honoring commitment. There is value to teaching kids to honor commitments (Today Parents).
- Remind kids that we value their effort. Participation trophies tell kids what matters is showing up for practice, learning the rules and rituals of the game and working hard (Today Parents). Increase interest in sports.
- By recognizing individuals who do show up, even with a losing team, can create an experience that positively impacts a continued interest in the sport.
Argument AGAINST Participation Trophies
- The winner is no longer recognized. When everyone gets the same trophy/reward, we are telling kids that there is no difference between showing up and losing vs. showing up and winning.
- Showing up is not recognized in real life. Former NFL Super Bowl champ Kurt Warner, on Twitter, “They don’t let kids pass classes 4 just showing up,” @Kurt_Warner wrote.
- Overbuilt self-esteem produces narcissism. A study last year found that children whose parents overvalued them were more likely to develop narcissistic traits, such as superiority and entitlement - two qualities that aren’t necessarily going to benefit kids when the going gets tough (CNN Study).
As the CEO of Upper Hand, over the years I have had the privilege of working with and learning from thousands of elite coaches, trainers and intelligent athletic business owners. I have also enjoyed coaching youth baseball (ages 8 to 12) for over eight years (and we won).
Every season I start by outlining the team rules and expectations at the first practice. These include things like: show up on time, what to wear, how to treat one another, etc. But we also start each season by thinking with the end in mind, so I tell my players: I am volunteering to coach to help you win a little league championship. In pursuit of that goal, I commit to helping you develop as a baseball player and as a human being.
As each season unfolds, time separates the talented, committed and coachable. Practice roll calls start to become routine, revealing the same player or players who are a no call / no show or arrive thirty minutes late (sometimes to games - put me in coach!), or worse the players who show up all the time and do not care which way the wind blows. In this case, they are hurting the majority of the kids who care about the outcome and winning that championship.
Using a little reverse psychology, if I come into work at Upper Hand everyday clocking in 9 to 5, but fall short on monthly, quarterly or annual goals do you think my shareholders, employees or Board give me a participation trophy celebrating my commitment to the company? Of course not, someone else plays in my position and I get the bench.
So how do we recognize commitment without undervaluing the importance of working hard to win?
Here are alternatives to participation trophies that accomplish the same goal:
- Pizza party or Team social event. The word trophy by the very definition just does not make sense as the reward for participation. Instead, replace individual trophies with a social event that focuses on bringing the team together. This emphasizes the importance of commitment by centering the reward around your teammates. And when the kids who missed practices or games don’t show up to the event, you are rewarding the real participation winners.
- Turn a participation trophy into scholarships. Make it more affordable for underprivileged athletes to join the league. All the money spent on participation trophies is counter-intuitive to the lesson the reward should be teaching. Instead of budgeting to spend on trophies, spend those dollars to support new teammates who also wish to show their commitment to the team.
- Replace the trophy with a certificate. Remember in grade school when they had different levels of academic performance like honorable mention? I remember because I was reminded that I was not doing as well as some of the other kids when my certificate was a level below the others. This is a simple and affordable way to recognize varying levels of success or achievement.
In conclusion, recognizing the value of both commitment and the work ethic it takes to win, is critical in developing successful athletes and helping them grow into successful adults. Make sure you outline clear core values for your athletes, and then decide the most effective way to reward those exhibited values.