We Should Be Handing Out More Participation Trophies, Not Less

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

A few weeks ago, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison made headlines, not for what he’s done on the field, but for what he did off of it. In particular, he posted on Instagram that he decided to give back the participation trophies his kids earned, claiming that he wants them to “EARN a real trophy.” His words not mine.

He wrote:

“I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy.”

You can imagine that stirred up a heated debate on both sides.

Columnist Nancy Armour of USA Today supported Harrison by writing that life isn’t always fair, “yet somewhere along the way, someone had the misguided notion that kids should live in a la-la land where everything is perfect, there are no hardships or heartbreaks, and you get a shiny trophy or a pretty blue ribbon just for being you.” She even goes so far as to link what she calls an entitlement culture to depression and stress. Thanks, Nancy. Good to know you’re out there solving the world’s problems.

I have to land squarely on the other side.

Participation trophies are symbolic of a season well played, of giving up three days a week to practice and play games, of effort and sweat and injuries.
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Participation trophies are great. Harrison was wrong when he said his kids needed to earn a real trophy. Those ARE real trophies! They earned them not for being the best, but as an acknowledgment for the hard work they put in for an entire season. Sort of like the paycheck that Harrison gets for not winning the Super Bowl. It’s an acknowledgment for the hard work he puts in. He probably has a contract clause that says he gets a bonus if they do win the Super Bowl. But maybe he shouldn’t get paid at all until he “earns a real trophy.” I mean, just try harder, right?

Kids aren’t fooled. They know they didn’t take first place. When my daughter played basketball, they would give every kid a ribbon whether they took first or last. But the first place ribbons were nicer, and every kid there knew they didn’t win it all if they didn’t get that ribbon. They didn’t walk away thinking they had won. My daughter has been on both sides of that fence — having won it all and having not won it all. She certainly liked winning better. Who doesn’t?

But the ribbon was symbolic of a season well played, of giving up three days a week to practice and play games, of effort and sweat and injuries. It wasn’t a ribbon, as Armour puts it, “just for being you.” The ribbon said to them, “Job well done. We know it took a lot of work and we’re proud of you regardless of how high you finished.”

Gene Demby got me thinking when he commented on NPR that for him, running in a race and getting a medallion is very important, something my daughter and I could relate to. We just completed our first 5K and the medallion I received for accomplishing that task is as dear to me as many of the awards I’ve received in life for what Harrison and Armour would call “earning it.” In all honesty, I didn’t think I could do it. I’d never been in a timed race before and being quite out of shape, I wanted so much to be able to say I could accomplish it. I didn’t go in with the expectation that I would win. There was pretty much no way that was possible. But finishing? That in itself would be quite an accomplishment and hopefully would encourage both myself and my daughter to continue to lead a more healthy lifestyle. And we did it! Crossing the finish line and receiving that medallion was worth the pain, the sweat, and the work it took to accomplish that task.

Did I earn it Harrison and Armour? You bet I did.

Life is filled with “participation trophies.” Your salary is a participation trophy. You don’t get rewarded for being the best. You get paid for putting in the hard work. And if you’re lucky, you get a bonus for being the best. Why should sports be any different? Especially if you expect sports to mirror life? I’m tired of the “win only” mentality. It doesn’t encourage those who don’t succeed. It discourages them from even trying. Why bother if you’re not going to be the best? Maybe instead of handing out fewer trophies, we should hand out more.

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Article Posted 4 years Ago

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