There has been a lot written on whether children should receive participation trophies for youth sports. Should youth sports organizations be providing players with trophies and medals simply for showing up? On one side, proponents of participation awards stated that it was worth a few bucks to give kids a big smile. On the other side some say these awards cause long term damage and build entitlement in kids.
Kids should always be having fun playing the sports they love. By the time they reaching the parking lot after a game, many players are still smiling even though they may have lost the game just because of the enjoyment of playing and spending time with the team. Their hard work is rewarded by learning new skills and seeing self-improvement. It’s not always about winning.
“If the only reason a kid shows up is that so at the end of ten weeks they’re going to get some medal or trophy, I don’t think there’s a lot of kids who do that,” said John O'Sullivan, Founder of the Changing the Game Project. “They don’t go to the playground every day at school and play with their friends because they’re expecting a trophy at the end of it, they do because it’s a great place where it’s fun and they own the experience, and that’s what youth sports has to be as well.”
Ask yourself this question: When kids come back inside from playing road hockey and you see the smile on their face, do you ask them if they won or if they had fun?
Rewarding participation with something tangible can take away what it means to be involved in sport. Players should strive to be better because they want to be. Love of the game isn’t motivated by trophies or medals.
“That’s what we call extrinsic motivation and yet everyone in the athletic development world knows that intrinsic motivation is what pushes athletes through.”
Instead of handing out trophies, coaches and organizers can focus on rewarding positive attributes that teach values. Even in the NHL, this concept is prevalent in many locker rooms. The New York Rangers hand out the Broadway Hat after each game and the Carolina Hurricanes award a fireman helmet.
“I’ve met some youth coaches, who do with trophies what I think is a good idea, is that they have some values for their team. The values might be things like hard worker, sportsmanship and the hustle award, and they’ll buy two or three little trophies, and each week, at the end of the week, they’ll award one of those value trophies to one of their players in practice who gets to keep it for the next week and then pass it on to the next one. I think that’s a motivating thing because you’re rewarding a value that everyone can earn.”
This teaches players to strive to be better people and they are goals that every player can attain, no matter the skill level.
“I think one of the biggest misconceptions in youth athletics right now is this idea that athletics can either be competitive or it can be fun. What we have misunderstood is the difference between pleasure and enjoyment... Sports doesn’t have to be all about pleasure, it doesn’t have to be happy-clappy every moment. You can still work really hard and push kids out of their comfort zone. The enjoyment piece, which is ‘I love this because I see myself getting better and I can’t wait to come back and do it again,’ that can never disappear.”
After all, kids can have a bookshelf full of participation ribbons, but it’s the one trophy displayed on the mantle that can mean the most to them. Volunteering and getting involved with the community doesn’t come with tangible recognition either yet helping out others in need is still a positive reward in itself.
John O'Sullivan is the Founder of the Changing the Game Project and an internationally sought after speaker for coaches, parents and youth sports administrators. He is also the author of two #1 bestselling books on parenting athletes, Changing the Game and Is It Wise to Specialize? You can find John’s work on his blog at www.ChangingTheGameProject.com.