For some reason, there’s been a lot of writing published in the past few weeks about the horribleness of participation trophies. Some NFL superstar threw out the ones his sons got. The right has been raging about them for years, saying they give kids a sense of entitlement; a belief that everything should be handed to them. Research has shown that the more successful, white, conservative and male a person is, the more likely they are to disparage these trophies. Only winners deserve recognition.
In my book KEEPING SCORE (of course I'm going to link to its Amazon page!), I wrote a scene about trophies. It felt pretty true-to-life to me:
Since it was the last game of the season, Franco passed out trophies and said encouraging things about each player. The parents stood behind them and took pictures. David and I flanked Chloe.
"Why do they get trophies?" Chloe whispered to me, but not quietly enough. Scott shot her a dirty look. "They didn't win a championship or anything."
“That’s just how it is these days,” I admitted. “Everyone gets a trophy just for showing up.”
Franco passed a trophy to Matthew.
"And Matthew … who never gives up, is always trying, no matter what."
Matthew beamed, too young to understand the phrase "back-handed compliment." But Scott and Jennifer sure did.
"For Sam,” Franco said, “I am saving the best for last." The trophy he pulled out was bigger than the rest. "I am proud to say that Sam has allowed the fewest goals of all the keepers in the league for this age group."
Franco handed the trophy to Sam, whose eyes were as big as soccer balls. I pulled out my iPhone and snapped a few pictures. Then Chloe did the same thing.
Jennifer put her arm around Laura and whispered something, looking at me the entire time.
Matthew is happy to get his trophy, happy to have his effort recognized even though it didn’t result in a championship. His parents, who would prefer that their son struggled less and accomplished more, are embarrassed by the acknowledgement and envious of the mother of the child who got a “real” trophy.
Matthew is not the hero of my book. He’s a child who is pushed to play by hugely competitive parents. He wants to play, he wants to be better than he is, and he’s embarrassed to be on a successful baseball team he’s not really good enough to belong to. But his parents cart him around to private lessons and coaching, and by the end of the book, he becomes a much better player. And while Sam is more athletic than Matthew, he has his own set of demons to battle, and twice asks to quit baseball entirely. How he (and his mother) overcome those demons and continue to play are the most important plot points in my book.
So what does this have to do with participation trophies? Although Cooperstown Dreams Park hands out rings to every ball player who shows up, participation trophies are not big in the world of travel sports.
Why do we want our children to play sports? Are we all hoping to raise kids who earn huge college scholarships and then hit the pros? It rarely happens. Do we only want our kids to play if they are MVP of their team, if their team wins championships? Is it for the love of the sport? Most parents would probably say no, even if they are secretly dreaming otherwise. The “right answer” is that we want our children to play sports to keep them out of trouble, to help girls develop confidence in their bodies, and to foster individual accomplishments and a sense of responsibility.
Whether our kids are superstars or second stringers, though, early participation in sports can establish exercise as a lifelong habit. Kids who run during soccer practice become teenagers who run after baseball practice who become managers who run before work or on the weekends. Pushing their bodies, living in their bodies, people who play sports starting at a young age will become adults who are stronger and healthier than those who did not. It’s not about winning. It’s about living.
And this is where those participation trophies come into play. Because if the goal is to create a lifelong habit of exercise, of challenging one’s body, of developing a sense of responsibility, it’s not the MVPs of the team who need to be convinced. Those kids -- to whom athletics comes easy, who lead their teams to championship games and are always the first to be picked for gym class teams – need no participation trophies. Even without the medals they earn, they will play for the love of the sport, for how well their bodies listen to their commands, for how good it feels just to move.
It’s the kids who suck who need the encouragement.
I say this with no mean intent. I was a kid who sucked and am now an adult who hates exercise but forces herself to do it. I spent my grade school years in a neighborhood with active children, who raced each other at the bus stop every morning and played pick-up baseball in the backyard on weekends. Our gym teacher was obsessed with fitness levels and constantly tested us against each other. I was well aware that I sucked.
But I liked it. I liked running, even though I was the slowest kid on the block. I loved to ride my bike. I loved gymnastics, even though I was always put in the lowest group. I was even game to try softball, which my mother loved.
But I was the worst kid on the team. I did not get a participation trophy. I got bullied. I was told that I was “the best player on the other team.” I was picked last during gym class. Even the gym teacher rolled her eyes when I refused to run on a dusty, slippery sidewalk, and called me “out” when I took two bases on two separate overthrows.
I learned to hate sports. Hate my body. Hate running. Hate moving. Would a participation trophy change all that? No. Would the attitude that all kids should be encouraged to play, no matter how good they are, have helped? Definitely. Kids who are not natural athletes can get better, but it will not happen in an environment of “only winners count.” It will not happen with people who scorn the participation trophy. Because people who scorn that trophy were probably not children who stood knock-kneed at home plate “like a dog begging for a walk.”
The courage it takes for a non-athletic child to play sports should be rewarded, not ridiculed. Some of these children grow into teenagers who become masters of their own bodies and the sports they love. And even if they don’t, developing a sports habit will serve them for the rest of their lives.
I did not develop the sports habit, and it wasn’t until I was well into adulthood and married to a man who did play into his high school years that I forced myself off my butt and into the gym. But I still hate it. My biggest regret, though, isn’t that I grit my teeth every time I set the hour on the treadmill. It’s that when my son was learning to hit, throw, and field a baseball, I wasn’t good enough or confident enough to help him. (There’s a scene in KEEPING SCORE where my protagonist, Shannon, buys herself catching gear and then catches her son’s bullpen. Writing it was a kind of wish fulfillment for me.)
Perhaps the time of “everyone gets a trophy” has passed. But something still needs to be done to recognize the child who shows up even though he or she has no natural talent or ability. Who comes to practice and tries his hardest even though he’s the worst on the team. Who makes an effort with nothing to show for it.
Sometimes just showing up really is worth a medal.