Participation Trophies: Good, Bad Or Indifferent?

The story ran for a solid week in mid-August, 2015. Perhaps you saw it. James Harrison, linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, went on a rant after his boys brought participation trophies home from school. In his mind, trophies are only for champions. He didn’t want his kids to get the idea that they should receive an award just for showing up. All of this resonated loudly with news agencies and talk show hosts as they practically canonized him for being the embodiment of principled conservatism. I’m sure that Mr. Harrison is a fine man and a good father, but is he right about all of this? Are participation trophies bad for kids? Do they send the wrong message and instill in children a sense of entitlement?

For sake of full disclosure, in case you don’t already know, our program here at the Bridgeton Athletic Association provides participation trophies for its training divisions: T-Ball, PAL Ball (machine pitch) and the first year of kid-pitch (eight & under). I do this for a variety of reasons, none of which have anything to do with political correctness, a sense of entitlement or the misguided notion that kids can’t handle winning and losing. (On the contrary, kids handle winning and losing much better than do the adults in their lives; more on that later.)

First, let’s take a look at the inscription on the trophy. If it says something like “T-Ball Champion” or “All Star Player” and is being distributed to all participants, Mr. Harrison’s point would be well taken. That would be sending the wrong message. Though we have not been told what the inscription was on the trophies in question, I can tell you that the ones we distribute here at BAA simply bear the name of the organization, the year and the sport. The term “champion” is never in evidence, nor should it be. So what are my reasons for giving these things to youngsters?

The first reason is tradition. It was common practice here at BAA long before the PC movement found its legs. There are a number of moms, dads and coaches in our program who played here when they were kids. They want their sons and daughters to experience what they did when they were young. What could be wrong with that? Secondly, it’s FUN. The kids really enjoy the gift and their little faces light up when they receive them. So do the faces of moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas, because, you see, little league is a family event. Furhermore, the kids don’t view these trophies as achievement awards, they view them as toys. More to the point, they are a commemorative piece; a memento of their little league season and nothing more. It simply means, “Hey – you played T-Ball this summer!”

Another reason for the practice here at BAA – and in my mind, an important one – is that the participation trophy aids in ensuring that adults, especially adult coaches, do the right thing. That begs an explanation. River Valley Baseball, BAA’s in-house baseball league, is a developmental program. As the initial phase of that program, our training divisions do not track scores, publish standings or crown champions. That is by design, as a scoreboard would encourage amateur, volunteer coaches to short-circuit the process of early player development in the pursuit of victories.

The skills in the game of baseball – hitting, running, fielding and throwing – are very difficult to master and can only be managed by repetition. The early divisions are designed to maximize the implementation of those skills with more swings, more fielding chances and more throws. That prepares the youngster for the higher divisions, where winning and losing will become an issue. There, he or she will have to execute plays. Without this basic skills training, successful plays at succeeding levels would be few and far between.

Yes, scoreboards and championships would dramatically change the manner in which many of those teams are coached. Let’s face it – a team can be coached to play the game properly or it can be coached to play it pragmatically and just do what it takes to defeat the other team of six year olds. I have witnessed everything from playing all ten fielders inside the baselines to eliminate the possibility of a hit, to having fielders roll the ball to first base to reduce errors. All of that is orchestrated by the ‘clever’ adult coaches in order to ensure a win. Who loses in all of this? The ones who should benefit from the exercise: the kids. I extend the training divisions to include the first year of kid-pitch because – you guessed it – Mr. Clever would ride his best arm the entire season instead of developing a few more pitchers. Once again, we want to encourage adults to do the right thing in this important, foundational phase of little league.

What does all of this have to do with participation trophies? Giving these little awards to all participants helps to underscore, to everyone involved, the fact that the scoreboard is irrelevant at this stage of the game. Is it working? The kids in the program are having a great time and they advance to the next level prepared and eager to compete. Moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas are thoroughly enjoying the experience, judging by the cheers, hoots and hollers and laughter emanating from the field. Yeah, I’d say it’s working; and I attribute much of that success to our rules and policies, participation trophies included.

Shifting gears just a bit, I feel the need to mention another issue regarding trophies because it relates, in my opinion, to the one we are discussing. Every year I purchase thousands of dollars’ worth of team and individual trophies to be distributed to the first and second place teams in each age and skill division. Normally, there are about thirty trophy sets, which I personally present at our season-ending party. When that party is over, there will be anywhere from three to five sets that will remain unclaimed. Almost without fail, those trophies will have “2nd Place” inscribed on them.

Do you see a correlation to Mr. Harrison’s claim that “trophies are for champions”? I certainly do. It has been my experience that some people – and perhaps Mr. Harrison is one of them – view 2nd place as 1st loser. It matters not that the kids would have enjoyed and appreciated the award; it matters not that 2nd place might have been a tremendous accomplishment for that team. What matters is whether or not the presentation will be an uplifting experience for the coach. Now I must ask you an important question. What do we see at work here – a ‘competitive’ mindset or an inflated ego? You decide.

So how about it? Are participation trophies good, bad or indifferent? I would have to say that they are what you make them. We know what Mr. Harrison makes of them and he is not alone in that opinion. By the same token, the folks in my program know what BAA’s participation trophies represent and they appreciate the gesture. In all the years I have been doing this, stretching back to the mid 1980s, I have never had a parent return one to me in a huff. And you know what? I’ve never witnessed a twelve year old throwing a tantrum because he failed to receive a trophy to which he thought he was entitled.

I get it, ladies and gentlemen; believe me, I get it. After decades of political correctness and social engineering, we’re all pretty much fed up with things that might bear a resemblance to them. That goes double for me. But in my opinion, friends, we have elevated symbolism over substance in this debate. The trophy itself is far less at issue than the purpose(s) for which it is given. As you now know, there are other reasons for the practice.

After all has been said and done, I think that some people are simply hung up on the word ‘trophy’. Perhaps we should find a new word for these little postseason party favors. There’s food for thought, huh? In any event, if you want to ensure that your son or daughter doesn’t grow up with a sense of entitlement, that’s a great and noble cause. It’s called parenting, mom and dad, and you can rest assured that if you engage that pursuit in earnest, an eight dollar piece of molded plastic will not thwart your efforts.

And now, I believe that I am finished with my little rant.

– Bob Totterer