Should every kid who participates in youth sports get a trophy or medal?
This question stirs lots of emotions among athletes, parents, and coaches, and has generated untold number of discussions about the culture of competition in youth sports and the value placed on winning and losing. Recently, there’s been a strong backlash against what is derisively called a ‘trophy mentality.’ But these arguments can often miss some important context about the importance of being inclusive to young athletes and rewarding their efforts even when they haven’t begun to master skills yet.
Establishing boundaries, setting expectations
Matt Infranca was a four-time Missouri state high school champion at Oak Grove High School from 1991 to 1994. When Matt’s son, Michael, started wrestling at a young age a few years ago, Michael wanted to buy shirts and put "champion" on it even when he didn't win. His father gently explained his reasons against this idea.
"I'm probably a little old school in thinking that you get what you earn," says Infranca, now Director of the MOWest Youth Championship Wrestling Club and Kids Director for Missouri USA Wrestling.There are a lot of lessons to learn when you lose a match and how to overcome that, says Infranca. “This is a very humbling sport as we all know,” he says. “Kids have to work to win on the wrestling mat, have to work to win in the classroom, have to work to win in life.”
His son, now 13, is still wrestling. And winning. But his perspective and focus on competition has changed.
"Now, the medals are not what is important to him," says Infranca. “He's more focused on continual improvement, knowing that through hard work and effort the results will provide any reward needed."
John O'Sullivan is the Founder of Changing the Game Project and author of Changing The Game, the Parent's Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids. He wrestled from second through eighth grade before turning to soccer, which he played in college and professionally. He provides this analogy:
In the kid’s movie The Incredibles, the evil villain tries to give everybody superpowers. His theory is that if everyone is special, then no one is special. Kids understand in that movie that that is not necessarily a good thing and that it is OK if some people are better at things than others.
"This applies to wrestling, to all sports, and to life," adds O'Sullivan. "We do not need to give participation medals. Kids will still play without them, always have and always will."
But, he adds, there are ways to use medals and trophies as a motivator and way to reward young athletes for their effort, says O'Sullivan. He notes that some coaches working with kids under the age of 10 award simple trophies every week to young players based upon things like being the hardest worker, best teammate, or for great sportsmanship. At the end of each week, the trophy gets passed on to the next recipient.
"What you are acknowledging are important values to your team, and for life, things that are earned on the field, not at the registration table," says O'Sullivan. "These trophies actually mean something, and give kids something tangible to strive for in practice and games. Reward them for that."
John Engh, chief operating officer of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, says his organization’s message to coaches and administrators is that anything that encourages young kids to continue with sports is the right approach. "We have found that, at the younger age levels—under the age of 10—participation recognition can be very significant as it contributes to the enjoyment and greater possibility of continuation in that sport." says Engh.
The reasons are simple, he says."The smiles on the kids’ faces when they are receiving them at the end of a season, which may be their first venture into organized sports, are a testament to their value," adds Engh.
Again, this doesn’t have to be positioned as an award for just showing up. If the coach stresses that these awards are being given out for working hard in practice and doing your best throughout the season, says Engh, "that means something to kids and may even be the impetus for them to continue working on their skills at home and more important, encourage them to return the following season."
As kids get older, this kind of recognition is no longer appropriate, Engh explains. As young athletes mature, coaches should begin teaching life skills and helping youngsters understand the thresholds for success get tougher. Take wrestling for example: "[Kids] aren’t going to win every match," he notes. "There are going to be disappointing performances along the way and every season isn’t going to end with a trophy for them to take home."
Emphasize the long-term rewards of sports
Kevin White, Director of the Minot MatWrat Wrestling Club in Minot, North Dakota and the 2008 USA Wrestling Kids Person of the Year, says the most important thing a child can learn from a loss is the fact that they are still worthy of their parents’ love and attention. There are very few successful wrestlers, from beginners to Olympic champions, who succeed without an unconditional support system in place, he says. Receiving a trophy, or medal, is not a substitute for that kind of ongoing gencouragement.
"I tell parents of our youth club that if they want a trophy case full of awards, then go to the trophy store and buy them," White says. As for losing, he tells kids (and parents): accept that it happens. “Don't sugar coat the outcome of a loss,” he says. “That guy was better than you today. That does not make it out to be the end result. There is no shame in failure, if you learn from it, and use it to push yourself further.”
Dr. Patrick Cohn is president and founder of Orlando, Florida-based Peak Performance Sports, where he provides mental toughness training to individual and team athletes. He says research suggests that extrinsic rewards aren’t as helpful—and can even be controlling—for young athletes. “You want kids to be intrinsically motivated to participate in sports because they enjoy doing them, not because they’re driven by season-ending rewards [like a trophy or ribbon]."
Most kids don’t play sports to just receive a trophy or medal or ribbon, Cohn points out. Rather, they do it to enjoy the spirit of competition, to share experiences with friends, to strive for goals, and to master skills. In the end, these are the elements of youth sports that parents and coaches should be encouraging and focused on rewarding.
For more discussion on this, see PCA founder and CEO Jim Thompson on ESPN's Outside the Lines discussing participation trophies in youth sports.