PREST: In praise of participation trophies

"If your principal argument is that we should not take every opportunity we can get to make children feel good about themselves in a wholesome and harmless manner, then you should go watch that scene in the movie Up that makes everyone cry."

One of my favourite parts of being a youth sports coach is that point at the end of the season when I get to contribute to the downfall of Western Civilization.

There are other great things about being a youth coach – holding back ever-threatening chaos, moulding young minds, free oranges – but the part I really love is giving all my players their participation medals. This, to some people, makes me a very dangerous man.

article continues below

The sports world has a long history of giving out awards. Back in ancient Greece, winners at the Olympic Games were often awarded prizes such giant jars of olive oil that, contrary to the myth of the amateur athlete, actually had great monetary value.

Olympic motto: Faster, Higher, Extra Virgin.

In the modern Olympics, gold medals go to those athletes who devote their lives to honing their bodies and perfecting incredibly difficult skills. Also lugers. In some sports, like weightlifting, the best competitors are given bronze medals and then bumped up to gold once all the drug tests are processed. 

Many people believe that the greatest sports trophy in the world is the Stanley Cup, first presented in 1893 as an award for the best amateur hockey team in Canada. It is now up for grabs each year for any team in the National Hockey League except for the Vancouver Canucks.

Soccer players fight for the World Cup, golfers want a jacket, boxers a belt. Those who achieve sustained greatness can find themselves inducted into a Hall of Fame, just like the impressive athletes and builders who went into the North Shore Sports Hall of Fame last week.

These awards are earned through sheer hard work and determination from the athletes with invaluable support from family, coaches, and – in Russia’s case – chemists.

Somewhere along the way, though, came the concept generally known today as the “participation trophy.” These awards are given to young athletes not for winning games or being the best player, but simply for showing up.

To some people, this idea of rewarding kids for just showing up is the root of all of the world’s problems today.

All those children, according to the arguments posted on Facebook by angry people named “Don” or “Joyce,” feel like they are “special” and “winners,” and they grow up to become entitled adults who feel that they are special winners no matter what they may or may not accomplish. This ballfield Bolshevism builds false confidence in these kids, they say, leaving every no-talent buffoon feeling like they could grow up to be president of the United States.

That, at least, is how the anti-participation-trophies crowd sees it.

I disagree. I love participation awards for the youngsters! If your principal argument is that we should not take every opportunity we can get to make children feel good about themselves in a wholesome and harmless manner, then you should go watch that scene in the movie Up that makes everyone cry. Then, go have a good cry. And then, re-evaluate your life goals. 

My second response is that you don’t make any sense. Children are not dumb. Most of the five-year-olds on one of the soccer teams I coached this season knew exactly what the score was in every game they played, even though no one was actually keeping score. Sure, some players are much more interested in plastic bags that float by the field, but they all know the difference between winning a game and losing a game. None of them are going to look at the medal they are given at the end of the season and extrapolate that they are somehow the best soccer player in the world or someone who is superior to everyone else. Because, you know, they have eyes. They can see that all the other players are getting medals too.        

You know what the medal does do, though? It makes them feel good! My kids love getting medals almost as much as they love stealing my phone to talk to Siri. They take the medals to school the next day to show their friends and teachers. What kind of monster would be against a gesture that makes children feel good about themselves?

Some argue you shouldn’t be rewarded just for showing up. But life is about showing up. Voting in elections. Shovelling snow off your neighbour’s sidewalk. Committing yourself to something.

The most important statistic for me in any season isn’t wins or losses, it’s how many of those kids come back to play again the next season. 

Every time I get to hand out participation medals to one of my teams, I get to shake the hands of a dozen young people from my community, thank them for being on my team, congratulate them on doing their best and tell them that I hope to see them again next year.

There will be time for giving prizes only to champions when they are older. But making young people feel good about themselves is not some slippery slope to bad citizenry. It’s just spreading around the olive oil.

Andy Prest is the sports editor for the North Shore News and writes a biweekly humour/lifestyle column. He can be reached via email at aprest@nsnews.com.

Read Related Topics

© Copyright Tri-City News

Tri-City News POLL

Do you think Tri-Cities communities do enough to help homeless people?

or  view results