The Participation Trophy Debate


A highly-debated topic in sports and competitions worldwide is the use of participation trophies and the effect they can have on the children who receive them. Many argue to keep participation trophies in sports, citing that it increases self-esteem and instills important values in young children. Others argue against participation trophies because of the negative traits and misled motivation it can promote to children. It’s essential to understand both sides of the argument to form a decision on whether or not you want to hand out participation trophies at your next sports game or competition and the potential impact it can have on your kids.


What Are Participation Trophies?

Participation trophies are trophies that are commonly given to children who participate in a sport or competition. The idea is to reward the child for being a part of the sport, not necessarily because they play well or did the best. Participation trophies are given to non-ranking team members, meaning that they did not place first, second, or third in a competition or sport.


Who Receives Participation Trophies?

There is no age limit on who can receive participation trophies. Participation trophies are handed out to every age group for multiple types of activities such as marathons, sports leagues, competitions, or recitals. It’s most common to find participation trophies handed out to children eight and under, as it seems to be effective for this age range. Once kids are between the age of eight to twelve, they start to lose excitement for receiving a participation trophy and don’t feel the beneficial effects or joy associated with receiving a participation award.


History of Participation Trophies

Participation trophies have been around for a long time. The first mention of the idea of participation trophies dates to 1922. The Ohio State Invitational High School Basketball Tournament gave participation trophies to every athlete who played in the invitational as well as handed out awards to the winning players.

 Around that same time, universities began awarding participation trophies to those in recreational sports or fraternities. Universities started using participation trophies as a recruiting tool at their schools. The thought behind the participation trophies was that it would encourage more students to participate in extracurricular activities, boost exercise and increase enrollment at their schools. Organizations, school teams, and even the military have adopted the idea of the participation trophy since then.

 The debate around participation trophies began in 1998, when Victor Martinez, a columnist in El Paso, claimed that participation trophies were “giving our children a false sense of accomplishment.” This movement continued to pick up energy in the early 2000s and encouraged many sports teams to reconsider the idea of handing them out. Even though the debate has been going on for the last twenty years, participation trophies are still frequently used for sports and competitions today. Before deciding your outlook on participation trophies for your team, consider the participation trophy debate’s positives and negatives.


Pros of Participation Trophies

1. Positive Reinforcement

Recent studies show that using positive reinforcement, especially in younger children, can be one of the most effective behavior modification techniques. It can prevent misbehavior and encourage prosocial behaviors, like following directions or sharing. Giving out a participation trophy shows the value of participating in team activities and rewards good behaviors like team building, communication, trust, and physical activity. By doing this, children are more likely to participate in future sports or teams and follow the rules to be contributing members of their organizations.

2. Teaches Important Values

Handing out participation trophies emphasizes other values that are more important than winning, such as teamwork, sharing, and hard work. Kids who receive participation trophies learn the positive impacts of developing social skills, leading an active lifestyle, and trying new things.

 “The idea of a participatory trophy is not to make everyone a winner, but to acknowledge that the child put time and effort forward and to provide a memento of the experience,” Will Honea, former sports coach, explains. “People who oppose participation trophies seem to have a very low opinion of the emotional intelligence of the average child. Guess what, no kid who got a participation trophy ever confused his/her modest award to the team MVP’s prizes and attention. It’s simply something to commemorate their time as part of a team.”

3. Elevates Children’s Success

Kids who receive a participation trophy are being taught how important it is to work hard and feel a victory for the devotion they put into their team or organization. Even if a child is not the best at a sport, they still must show up every day at a specific time, follow organizational rules, practice consistently, and give up their free time to dedicate themselves to their team. These values should be rewarded, as it is a necessary learning experience that children can take with them through life. Participation trophies help children feel appreciated and successful.

4. Increases Self-Esteem

When kids feel valued or praised for the hard work they do, it increases their self-esteem. While they might not have won first place, they tried hard, and that is important too. Increasing a child’s self-esteem teaches them to work harder at the things they like to do and boosts their confidence to take on new life challenges.


Cons of Participation Trophies

1. Kills Competition

One of the biggest arguments against participation trophies is that it kills children’s sense of competition. Not everyone should feel like they’re first or a winner all the time. Losing is an opportunity that children can use to work harder to win next time. By telling everyone that they’re equal, instead of choosing a winner, it can prevent kids from trying to perform at their full potential because they know they will be rewarded no matter what. Kids who do work hard may decline in performance because they don’t understand why they should try harder if the reward is the same for everyone.


2. Promotes Narcissism

Participation trophies let every child feel like they are the best, even if they aren’t exceptionally skilled at that sport or competition. Overvaluing a student can lead to a false sense of confidence, which can strongly inhibit them in life. In fact, a study earlier this year found that when students were overvalued, they were more likely to develop narcissistic traits such as entitlement and superiority. This can result in students believing that everything should be handed to them and that they don’t need to work hard to achieve the things they want in life. That behavior is harmful to a student’s growth and development.

3. Won’t Learn from Mistakes

Failure is a significant experience that every child needs to learn in their life because when they can learn to fail, they also learn how to recover and move forward. Throughout life, everyone encounters a failure. If you know how to learn from your mistakes and work harder or adjust what you’re doing, you’re likely to become better. If you’re unable to accept your mistakes or find the teachable moment from your errors, you’re not going to grow.

 Rewards need to be earned. By allowing your child not to receive an award, they’ll learn that they’re not the best at a sport. They can use that knowledge to improve their skills, work harder on themselves, or realize that they would be better suited to try an alternative activity. This vital life skill will carry on throughout their lives, allowing them to fail multiple times, recover, and stand stronger from experience.


4. Misled Motivation

Some believe that giving out participation trophies motivates children to participate in a sport for the wrong reasons. Instead of joining a team to win a participation trophy, a child should instead be encouraged to participate for other reasons like enjoying the sport, exercising, or having fun with friends. By not offering participation trophies, children will learn their real motivations behind choosing to participate in an activity or sport.


Are Participation Trophies Good or Bad?

There are a lot of arguments for allowing participation trophies and many against it. It becomes a personal choice for coaches and parents to make depending on the goals or motivations behind awarding a participation trophy.

 Some choose not to use participation trophies because it can eliminate competition, promote narcissism, and encourage motivation for the wrong reasons. However, participation trophies can be a great way to help motivate younger kids because it allows them to build excitement for the game and feel rewarded for their hard work. It helps them to become confident and have increased self-esteem in the things they pursue. Plus, it rewards hard work and teaches life values that children can take with them throughout their lives.


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