This summer, the unfortunate comment was very publicly made by two-time Superbowl champion James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers that his children would not be allowed to keep their participation awards.
He posted on his Instagram account: “I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. 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. #harrisonfamilyvalues”
It’s sparked a lot of debate, and to be fair, Harrison received notable praise for his comments. For example, Global News suggests that, “Critics of participation awards might borrow a page from Top Gun, and say “there are no points for second place.” These awards, they argue, simply reward failure and turn kids into under-achievers who think you just have to show up to succeed.”
It’s a viewpoint that is likely fuelled by an infamous statement made by University of Toronto psychology professor Gary Walters, who claimed that parents today have prioritized building their children’s self-esteem by rewarding everything. He says, “So every five-year-old on the soccer team gets a participation medal whether they were competent or not. [This has helped] contribute to the developing culture of narcissism and ‘look at me’-ishness.”
Thankfully, there’s enough criticism of this and like viewpoints to even out the debate. Forbes sports writer Bob Cook points out, “To me, the bigger problem is not giving kids trophies—it’s making trophies out of your kids. The real damage, I think, comes from parents who are pushing their children too hard towards a scholarship or pro career, and let their identities and family dynamics become wrapped up in that pursuit … When it comes to participation trophies, in my experience, kids know the score.”
And Disney’s Babble blog suggests that participation trophies are more than just trophies for participating, citing that they are instead “symbolic of a season well played, of giving up three days a week to practice and play games, of effort and sweat and injuries.”
Fair point. And I may be alone in this, but I think it’s high time we drop the semantics. Call it an award, call it a token, call it what you want. In the end, we all know what it is—including our kids. The participation medal, trophy, pin, hat, or whatever form it comes in, is not a reward for “doing nothing,” whatever James Harrison and his ilk might suggest. Instead, it’s a reward for our children having passed a milestone in their lives. It’s a memento of the teammates who have become friends, and the coaches who have become role models. And it’s a token of the things our children have done in those precious, fleeting years that are childhood.
Thirty years down the line, when our young men and women look at those mementos, they won’t see an empty award. They will see reminders of a life lived well, and timeless memories made.
Isn’t that, after all, the point of youth sports in the first place?