Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Why participation trophies may do more harm than good

Recently a New York Times Op-ed with the provocative title "Losing is good for you" caught my eye. Author Ashley Merryman began by urging parents to avoid extracurricular sports programs where every child receives a trophy for participation. While in by-gone days trophies were rare and coveted, she says, many programs across the country now routinely hand out trophies to every child, every season. 

This got me thinking about Rec&Ed's Youth Team Sports program. Although we pride ourselves on being the kid-friendliest youth sports program in town, we've never provided trophies to our elementary youth teams. Part of this, of course, is the budget impact of annually purchasing thousands of trophies. But we've also questioned the benefit trophies would add to the elementary program. We do provide trophies to our middle school league champion teams, but not for general participation.

This Op-Ed goes on to criticize these trophies as a symbol of the not-always-warranted praise many children receive throughout their childhoods. Merryman says her research on the effect of praise and reward on kids has shown that non-stop praise can have a negative long-term impact on children:
"Awards can be powerful motivators, but nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed. Instead, it can cause them to underachieve. 
Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, found that kids respond positively to praise; they enjoy hearing that they’re talented, smart and so on. But after such praise of their innate abilities, they collapse at the first experience of difficulty."
I think she makes a good point. Years of blanket praise for attendance on sports teams -- versus being complemented for specific skill improvement, teamwork, or wins -- may lead some children to be less motivated over the long run or crushed when they (inevitably) have a bad game.

That said, I've been at many of my own kids' Rec&Ed soccer and softball games when a play happens and BOTH sidelines erupt in cheers: one side because their team's child succeeded, and the other because their team's player tried. I love that about our games, and think it's a little different from the non-stop recognition in the article. The message to the kid who didn't succeed on the Rec&Ed field seems to be "keep trying, that throw/kick might make it next time."

And, I'm sure we all know young athletes who participate in sports because they love the game, love being part of a team, and are motivated to develop their skills -- regardless of any kind of trophy or reward they receive at the end of the season.

Merryman summarizes the role of parents (and, I would argue, coaches) this way:
When children make mistakes, our job should not be to spin those losses into decorated victories. Instead, our job is to help kids overcome setbacks, to help them see that progress over time is more important than a particular win or loss, and to help them graciously congratulate the child who succeeded when they failed.
I agree with this statement, both as a parent and as the Director of Rec&Ed. Overcoming errors on the field or losing games are similar to any type of challenge in a child's life. Parents and coaches can help their children build resilience in the face of these obstacles through caring conversations. Such conversations are an opportunity to talk honestly about what happened, focusing on both the positive and the negative. (They're also best done after the child who is upset has calmed down.)

Parents who sugarcoat these relatively minor childhood athletic failures are missing an opportunity to help their child learn and grow from a tough situation.

Around the Rec&Ed office, we often talk about what we hope our young players get from our program. Our top 3 priorities for our participants are to have fun, learn the sport, and build a sense of community with their peers, parents, and coaches. The natural outcome of these priorities? That our young players feel good about themselves, their teammates, and the sport.

Sometimes coaches collect a small amount of money from parents and purchase a token to honor each child's participation. Over the years my son's soccer coach gave out items such flame-covered soccer socks for them all to wear the next season, hacky sacks (to improve footwork skills) and team photo magnets. These tokens honored players' participation in ways that built community and related to the sport.

Would a participation trophy help our players feel even better about themselves? I have doubts, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

In the meantime, if you're looking for a kid-friendly, community-based team sport for your child, registration has just opened on our winter basketball and indoor soccer programs!

Youth basketball - Program info and easy registration 

Indoor soccer - Program info and easy registration

No, there won't be a trophy at the end -- but your child will have a great time, and will walk away with new friends and more skills.

Find out more about Rec&Ed's Youth Team Sports program here.

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  1. One of my best parenting moments happened kind of by accident. My 4-year-old daughter and I were very excited that she had gotten a speaking role in a little pre-school play. But it turned out we were mistaken, and she came home crying because another little girl had gotten the part. Normally, I would have immediately worked on reassuring her somehow, but I was so disappointed myself that, uncharacteristically, I started crying, too. We sat on the couch together an hugged and cried without saying anything at all. Pretty soon we both stopped crying. I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything. She spoke first. "Oh well," she said, "I guess that's just the way it goes sometimes." Process finished.

    I realized that my usual interventions to manage her feelings and perceptions had been less helpful than this moment of simply going through the process with her as a loving ally.

    I learned a lot in preschool!

  2. When our boys were in Cub Scouts they participated in the annual Pinewood Derby. They had so much fun making the darn things, carving the wood into crazy shapes like a peanut, a carrot and the fast, sleek, always a winner shape (that never won). When race day came, I found myself having a very uncomfortable conversation with another mom about how awful she thought it was that there had to be winners and losers. She thought every boy deserved to win the race. Unfortunately, that is not how it works, there or in real life. My boys loved making them, showing them off, putting them in the showcase in school and even though the actual race produced a few tears, it was really fun for everyone. I do not think participation trophies teach anything to our youth. If we can possibly teach our children about life and all the ways to handle situations, winning and losing, we will do them and all of us a huge favor.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I've heard from several people who have similar experiences. Your story is a good example of how the process can be as (or more) rewarding as the outcome.