The look of pride on my 5-year old’s face when he stepped up to receive his trophy at the end of his first flag football season confounded me. The size of the trophy, how they were handed out, nor the reason that trophies were given out at all was not the root of my confusion. What was so puzzling was my reaction to the moment. I was full of pride, happy for my son’s sense of accomplishment - which you could see on his face. I was excited to see how excited he was to accept the award and to take pictures with his coaches and his teammates.
Ok, this all sounds great. So, why am I confounded and confused? I should be over the moon - except for the fact that, up until now, I have always been opposed to “participation” trophies and medals given to kids seemingly for just showing up. But, there I was cheering loudly and with tears in my eyes, so gratified that my son is walking off the field with exactly the thing to which I was so vehemently opposed. How is this even possible?
You may be wondering why I am so against these little hunks of fake gold shaped like a football. As an avid sports fan, I watch athletes all the time face defeat and all that comes with it. Everything from being cut from a team to losing a big game like the World Series, day in and day out athletes are not rewarded for the fact that they show up. If they didn’t win, they lost. That is part of the game and part of what makes you a better athlete. In my eyes, it is hugely important that we teach kids early on that you must put in effort to be your best and that winning only comes when you do so. You don’t win just because your parents signed you up for a sport. And, by the way, I am not the only one at The Distillery, Inc. who feels this way. My business partner, Eira is even more opposed than I am and way more vocal about it.
Why do we feel the need to give kids awards just for showing up or, as Eira likes to put it, “getting an award just for living and breathing?” Are we so deep into the era of political correctness that we need to make sure everyone is treated equally? With a little bit of research, I discovered that the issue is a bit more complex than being “PC” on the field. Psychology has shown that a positive way to reward kids is to focus on their effort and not the outcome of the game. The way they hustle, the way they work through disappointment or failure on the field, the way they practice, and the way they treat their teammates and opposing players is much more important to building their self-esteem. These are the attributes that the original “trophies for everyone” were apparently meant to celebrate. That seems reasonable.
However, over time and through the well-meaning actions of parent-coaches, the trophies and medals have devolved into something given to everyone for any reason at all. This is what I am totally opposed to. It has devolved into giving medals at the end of a game because a kid was the only one who hadn’t received it yet. This is what happened to our kids. They got their medal for good communication on a day when neither of our sons was particularly listening to what the coaches were saying or engaged with their teammates. They were just the only ones who hadn’t yet received a medal and so they got one that day. Darn it, I want my son to get a medal for earning something!
But, as I watched my son receive his trophy with tears in my eyes, I realized that he did show up every week. He participated with enthusiasm - whether he was just the center for a few plays or was sitting out to give others a chance to play. He did, mostly, listen to the coaches during their limited practices. He did do things out of his comfort zone, like pulling off the flag of an opposing team member - which is something that made him a bit fearful. He did score on more than one occasion. He made friends with his teammates, most of whom he had never met before. He never spoke poorly of the other teams, even though most of the time they were beating my son’s team roundly. And, he was always excited to come back and play. For a 5-year old who had never played football before, in my mind at least, he did resoundingly earn the trophy he was given. Whether the coaches had presented it in a way that the kids knew what their effort had truly been, all of the kids had made it each and every week.
I feel like, at the end of the day, for at least at the beginning of a child’s youth sports experience, a trophy for showing up and participating is ok. When you are 5,6, and 7 it really is about the effort and not the win. The effort is often just making it to the field each week and being excited to play. Heck, at this stage, there are very loose rules and nobody really counts or cares about the scores. The kids are still learning what it means to be on a team. They are still learning what the rules of the game are. In fact, some of them are still learning which end of the field is their goal zone - as we saw a couple of times when our kids scored for the other team. I know my softened stance may not be popular with some…particularly, Eira. But, for now, I am going to cheer on any medal or trophy my son earns - even if it is just for showing up. I will let him proudly place it in his room and show it off with pride. But, he shouldn’t get so comfortable with the idea because, when he turns eight, all bets are off!
By: Wendy Rosenthal