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The Revival Of The Participation Trophy Debate

After Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison publicly denounced his sons’ participation trophies earlier this month, the age-old debate over whether or not youth sports organizations should be rewarding participation has resurfaced all over the internet.

Harrison announced on Instagram that he would be sending back the trophies received by his 6- and 8-year-old sons in the following post:

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Droves of people have flocked to social media sites to post their support for Harrison.

In a recent poll, Americans were asked if young athletes deserved trophies for their participation, or if only the winners should receive awards. The strong majority (57 percent) answered that only the winners should be rewarded.

When the responses were broken down by age, the oldest age brackets overwhelmingly favored trophies for winners only. However, the youngest group ranging in age from 18 to 24 differed only by a slight 51-49 margin.

Setting The Bar Low

According to HBO Real Sports, the American culture has been experiencing a shift in effort to make every child feel important. In an attempt to achieve that goal, sports organizations have begun rewarding every participant with a trophy – but the praise overload has set the bar low for achievement.

Overvalue Leads To Narcissism

Ashley Merryman, co-author of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing believes that the culture of giving trophies for effort should raise concerns.

In the past, the popular mindset was to tell every player that they were excelling on the field in hopes that they would put forth a greater effort to continue improving. However, after about twenty years, research now believes that telling players compliments about their performance does not develop healthy self-esteem, but narcissism instead.

One particular study found that when parents expressed overvaluing statements to their children, they were more likely to develop narcissistic traits, including superiority and entitlement.

Decreasing Resilience To Frustration

Doctor at Washington University in St. Louise, C. Robert Cloninger, believes that awarding trophies to all kids can have negative biological impacts, too. In other words, rewarding a participant constantly can decrease their ability to build up resilience to frustration. Trophies for participation prevents them from feeling the full effect of a defeat.

Deserving An “A” For Effort

As support builds for Harrison’s sentiment against participation trophies, groups of parents and sports officials are fighting back with the differing opinion that every effort should be rewarded in youth sports.

The Known Difference

Giving each participant a trophy or medal after a big game doesn’t change the final score. Each young team member knows the difference between winning and losing. They understand exactly how many points separated the teams. If asked, they’re able to identify which individual players on their teams played the best game.

Awarding their effort with a small token of recognition won’t distort the statistics, and giving out participation awards won’t convince them that they’ve won.

Reward Attempt, Not Outcome

Participation trophies are not handed out with the intent to transform each team into winners of the day. They’ve been used for years to signify the teams’ time commitment, hardwork, and improvement throughout the season.

The trophy is intended to serve as a momento for the season and a reminder of the experience for years to come.

With or without a trophy at the end of the season, athletes are more committed to an activity when they enjoy what they’re doing. If participation trophies can increase their passion for the sport, why take it away and lessen the experience?

Which team are you on? Let us know whether you’re for or against participation trophies in the comments section below!


Kris Baker

Kris Baker is the President of Demosphere and has been serving the Youth Sports Community since 2006.