Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Grandparents Question Participation Trophies

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Our grandchildren (grade-school age) have started playing sports. We are wondering about the phenomena of giving every child a trophy, no matter the outcome of his/her season. To us, it seems like an idea that doesn’t help children deal with defeat, the value of practice and trying again, hard work and teamwork – in other words, real life. Does everyone getting a trophy lead kids to think, “Hey, whatever, I’m going to get a trophy anyway”?

We’ve heard other parents and grandparents say they think participation trophies are great, there’s plenty of time when the kids get older to let them learn about winners and losers. When our kids were competing there were 1st, 2nd and 3rd place trophies and then other honors such as “most improved player,” “exhibits best sports conduct,” “scholar-athlete of the team” – all honors that were earned.

It feels kind of phony to us to get all excited and rave to our grandchildren about their getting a trophy that everyone automatically gets. What do you think?

The topic of participation trophies – that is, every child on a team receives a trophy for being a member of the team, regardless of his/her contributions – has generated a lot of controversy. A recent poll finds that when it comes to kids and their trophies, 57 percent of Americans think only the winning players should receive them. Another 40 percent say all kids on a sport team should receive a trophy for their participation.

Pro-Trophy Viewpoint
Here is a typical pro-trophy viewpoint: “These kids work their tail off all year for (the) trophies. These kids need to be rewarded for finishing the season and not giving up on (their) team. These kids earn these trophies even if they don’t win a single game.” Another supporting viewpoint is that participation trophies serve as a much-needed self-esteem booster and a source of pride for kids who are just starting sports.

Anti-Trophy Viewpoints
Former Olympic runner Vicki Huber Rudawsky, writing as a parent, puts forth another perspective: “Part of being a kid and growing up is to learn how to deal with disappointment. Part of growing up is to fail, to have someone else say, ‘You aren’t good enough’ or ‘you need to work harder.’ We need to hear that when we are young, because we will certainly hear those same words at some point in our adult lives. Many elite athletes have been cut from a team or told that they weren’t good enough. Those words became the driving force behind their eventual success.”

In a similar, but more strongly expressed view, lawyer and online provocateur Elie Mystal writes: “Participation trophies ruin lives. They create a false sense of accomplishment that tells kids to be proud of mediocrity at the very time they should be learning important lessons about dealing with failure and overcoming setbacks. It’s not that there’s no value in losing, it’s that such value has to come from inside as opposed to an external reward. Rocky didn’t need a participation trophy for going the distance.”

Not an Either-Or
However, as Daily Beast reporter and researcher Brand Zadrozny points out in her article, “My Loser Kid Should Get a Trophy,” perhaps the controversy need not be an either-or, but rather age dependent: “Most participation trophies are given to the pee wees, the tiny tots, the youngest players . . . who will probably [leave with] . . . a sense of accomplishment for other qualities that we still appreciate — like just giving something a go even though you may not be any good, sportsmanship, teamwork, losing with grace, and finding joy in an endeavor, even when you know you won’t be the best. Leaving with a symbol of those things can’t be so bad . . . Once kids hit grade school, and start to understand their own abilities and limitations, experts say the shine dulls on participation trophies”.

John O’Sullivan, author of Changing the Game: The Parent’s Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes, and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids, raises some particularly relevant points. He reminds us that every year 40 million children play youth sports, but that 70% drop out by the time they’re 13. Seventy percent! Why do they quit? Mr. O’Sullivan claims it is because many kids get tired of being criticized, yelled at, they’re afraid to make mistakes, and because there is such a strong emphasis on winning that this results in a lack of playing time for so many. Many kids come to hate the ride home after a game.

Most important, Mr. O’Sullivan references a Michigan State survey in which 30,000 kids were asked, “Why do you play sports?” The overwhelming response was, “Because it’s fun.” The kids’ expanded explanations included: They liked learning, being with their friends, the excitement. But a prime motivator is not for winning. Yes, they like winning and they value winning, but that’s not why they show up. They want to have fun. His advice is to say to the youngsters involved in sports, “I love watching you play.”

I want to suggest that whether or not your grandchildren get a participation trophy is not important. What is important is that you keep showing up at your grandchildren’s sports events, that you keep telling them how much you love watching them play, and that you hope they’re having fun. If they are awarded a participation trophy, I don’t think you need to worry that your grandchildren will get a false or inflated sense of their sports-playing capabilities: even young kids on the playground putting together teams for a pickup game know who the better players are and where they personally fall on the talented-untalented continuum.

In closing, I am reminded of the very talented five-year-old soccer player whose mom constantly reminded him to let the other kids on his team have a chance to score. The problem was that his teammates knew he would likely score, so they always passed the ball to him. If he passed the ball back to one of his teammates, they would just try to get it back to him. Five year olds: they knew what the score was, in more ways than one!

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