Apparently, we’re still arguing over whether giving out trophies to children just for participating in sports is leading to their, and America’s, ruination, as Washington State head football coach Mike Leach warned during a Sept. 13 press conference. Three minutes into the video below, you can catch him griping: ”It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s the team that has the most fun. All the crap like that. All the stuff that’s contaminated America where they give everyone a trophy and don’t keep score in little league anymore.”
Recently, a few newspapers elected to wade into the cesspool that is the debate over whether trophies should only be awarded to the top performers in youth sports, rather than to everyone who shows up. The ground covered by the Rockford Register-Star and The New York Times was very familiar, with the typical arguments about whether trophies encourage kids to continue participating and teach them that being active is good, or whether that mentality is contributing to the oft-cited “wussification of America.”
However, one particular argument against everybody-gets-a-trophy struck me, because it came from a 16-year-old who seems to have thoroughly absorbed the message that winners win, and losers should get nothing, which I’m not sure will work out for her benefit. From the New York Times, and I’ve emphasized the portion that struck me the hardest:
Trophies should be given out for first, second and third; participation should be recognized, but celebrated with words and a pat on the back rather than a trophy. As in sports as well as life, it is fact that there’s room for only a select few on the winners’ podium.
I know we all love to make youth sports and activities about life lessons (it makes us feel less guilty for the time and money we adults spend on them). And I understand that kids need to know how to lose with dignity, and pick themselves back up for the next round (though with half of public school kids from families poor enough to be eligible for free or reduced-priced school lunches, plenty of children get that lesson without needing sports to teach it).
But there is an all-or-nothing, life-as-a-zero-sum-game mentality in the statement about “there’s room for only a select few on the winners’ platform” that disturbs me. Sure, in sports, where score is kept and results are simple and tidy, yes, there is room for only a select few. The championship goes only to one team, the gold medal only to one competitor.
However, and I’ll say this with the benefit of 30 years’ experience on the New York Times contributor, life does not have a “winners’ podium” — not if life means being a good, conscientious person who measures success not merely by money made or career title held. Many corporate workplaces are seeing the value of employees who collaborate and, yes, participate, rather than fostering rivalries to get people to compete against each other.
I understand that parents can go overboard in praising their kids and overestimating their skills – after all, I write a youth sports blog. But a mere participation trophy, in the absence of adults engaging in the conduct I mentioned in the previous sentence, isn’t going to turn a kid into an entitled little brat. In my experience, kids tend to know when a trophy is just for showing up, and whether it’s for a championship.
For example, all four of my kids figured out that my 11-year-old’s 2016 house league softball championship meant a bigger, better trophy, though mainly they would have been excited about the championship without the trophy.
On the other hand, a league that only gives out trophies to the “winners” isn’t necessarily doing any harm, absent adults pushing a message that, say, second place is only first loser. You loser. And pushing a message that any situation in life that stinks of any competition should be attacked with ferocity and an anything-goes, winner-take-all attitude. To me, that seems like a more toxic message to children than the worst a participation trophy can do.