The Participation Trophy Problem Isn’t What You Think
If your child has a pile of trophies & medals on their dresser, this article is for you…
by Steve Silvestro, MD @zendocsteve
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It’s getting close to the end of another youth sports season—which means your child will soon be the proud owner of yet another participation trophy.
The only thing more prevalent than participation trophies these days is the number of people railing against them.
“In my day,” these cantankerous folks proclaim, “the only person who got a trophy was the one who came in first!” Participation trophies are somehow a marker of how everyone from millennials on down to today’s kids are supposedly weak and pampered and lacking in grit.
And yet, all the research on grit, growth mindset, and building kids’ mental strength shows that we should be praising kids’ effort—that rewarding hard, smart work despite the outcome is good. Isn’t giving out a participation trophy doing just that?
Well, yes and no.
While a trophy can be a physical token of the effort your child put into an activity, unless you or the coach specifically point that out, then that special meaning is lost.
And when your kids have played as many seasons as mine and you start to hear “Man, this is the same trophy as last season!” or “Medals again? I really wanted a trophy”—then you really see how a participation trophy usually comes off as just a cool, shiny object, rather than a symbol of hard work.
In essence, we’ve missed the point.
Participation trophies aren’t a sign of our cultural apocalypse—but they’re not achieving their intended goal, either.
So as this season winds down and my kids pick up another new trophy to crowd their dresser, or yet another medal to hang on their bedpost, here’s what I’ll be saying to each of them:
The prize, the reward for participating in this season was the experience itself.
Participation is the trophy.
Your prize this season was the learning, growing, the friendships you made, the new skills you developed.
The big first place trophy? That’s just a reward for the person for the team that stood out over everybody else. If that big first place trophy is important to you, then you need to decide first that you want it, and then what you need to do to get it.
But this trophy you have right here? It’s a symbol of how hard you worked and improved this season. I loved watching you play!
And I bet that if you can look back and see how much you’ve grown and improved this season, and all the great things you’ve gotten along the way—then you don’t need a little plastic trinket to make you feel proud.
Great work! I love you, kiddo!
I know that sounds like something the dad in Calvin & Hobbes would say, where every hard thing “builds character.”
And yet every single word of it is true.
So as your child walks off the field with a newly acquired participation trophy this season, have that conversation with her. Point out the growth she’s shown and the hard work she’s put into practicing and playing each week. Find something specific to say about a skill he improved on or a moment that was fun for you to watch. Let him know that the trophy isn’t there to make him feel better about not coming in first, but as one sign of the effort he put into the year.
When doled out without a conversation about how hard your child worked this season, participation trophies are indeed just another piece of plastic junk to accumulate in a corner of your child’s room.
But when that trophy is given in the right way, your child could walk away with the proud feeling that the trophy is actually the least important thing she gained this season.
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a pediatrician and host of The Child Repair Guide Podcast. He helps parents more confidently raise their kids—and he recently learned his mom donated his childhood trophies to the Goodwill years ago.