Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Are Participation Trophies Meaningful?

Woody Allen famously said that "Ninety percent of life is just showing up." While that may be true, it doesn't necessarily mean you should get a trophy for it.

Both of the short people played organized sports this spring and neither team came close to winning their respective divisions. Yet, both have trophies commemorating the seasons. It has become standard operating procedure in youth sports to give out participation trophies. The champions get bigger trophies or special t-shirts, but everyone comes away with some trophy.

The idea behind it is to make sure that we celebrate everyone's achievements during the season. All players grow as a result of these seasons, both in terms of their skills and hopefully in terms of their personalities. It is often those who had the longest way to go who went the farthest. Surely, this deserves recognition just as much as the most stacked team in the league clobbering everyone like everyone knew they would. Add in the idea that coming away with a trophy makes one feel special and when you combine the positive effects of a strong self-image for kids and the increased likelihood that they will return to the sport the following year making for a healthier league in terms of finances and registrants, everyone wins.

But in sports, not everyone wins. Part of what sports teaches is the ability to play hard and lose gracefully, a skill that will be needed in the rest of life outside of the chalk lines. This is a move away from that important lesson. We make everyone feel like winners all the time, so we never have to face ourselves honestly and appraise how we need to work to improve. By recognizing everyone, you in effect recognize no one. Participation trophies are not celebrations of the advances of each child, they are pieces of cheap, gold-colored plastic that don't mean anything to anyone. They are wastes of resources and energy for no purpose. They collect dust on shelves and are never admired or appreciated. They only reinforce our worst cultural vices -- the ideas that you don't play for the joy of playing, but to get something and that everything must be rewarded with something material.

Are participation trophies meaningful and valuable or pernicious and wasteful?