Angry Adam: Importance of participation

The other day I was sitting in my Secondary Literature class and listening to a student present a piece that he had found for our “critical issues” that we all had to sign up to talk about. His was about participation trophies in sports and other activities, and how they’re sending an incorrect message to children. At the end of the class hour, I found myself frantically writing down some notes to make sure that I could write this article, as I realized I was really the only one in the class, and apparently one of the minority in America, who thinks that participation trophies aren’t bad. So please, stop demonizing participation trophies.

What I hear most often in the good fight against these small pieces of metal or plastic is that participation trophies send a poor message to children. They say that everyone gets to win as long as they try, and that if you show up, you’re automatically deserving of recognition and reward. This gives them a view of life that leads them to becoming bad adults who can’t deal with their issues or any form of failure that comes their way and leads them down the path to being a burden on society. Most claimed that you have to start giving children a realistic expectation at a young age, so that when they’re older they will be able to deal with their issues. One even defended this point by saying that Olympic athletes don’t get any trophies or medals if they finish 4th or worse, so we need to train children to have to deal with things like this.

In response to this claim, I found myself making a statement that I thought was so elementary that I would never have to actually inform anybody of it. “Children aren’t adults.” I know it’s apparently a confusing concept to master, but it’s true all the same. There are a multitude of differences between children and adults: their size, their age, the development of their brains and bodies, and their ability to cope with loss and failure. This last one is the one that I want to make a serious point of, that children and adults don’t cope the same way with failure.

Have you ever been to a child’s sporting event? Both of my parents coached soccer, and both I and my older brother played the sport for years, I even refereed a few games as a bit of community service when I was in high school. The children running around look like ants flocking to crumbs falling from a fat man’s sandwich. There isn’t any rhyme or reason to it, they’re trying to have fun and do their best. Now, when one team loses, and the kids from that team are red-faced and blurry-eyed because the other team kicked a small ball at a net better than they did, you don’t sit down and say, “Sorry Timmy, you lost because those kids are better than you. People will always be better than you so learn to deal with that now!”

If you do say something like that, you’re a bad person and I don’t want anything to do with you. Maybe a world-class athlete at the Olympics could deal with someone telling her to her face that she didn’t do well enough to deserve a trophy. After all, being fourth place at the Olympics is the same as being fourth place in the world. But for a child at a youth football or soccer league to be told that he isn’t good enough, is more than just something you shouldn’t do, it’s something that is actually evil.

That’s not a thing that people say, so why are we adamant that we need to send that message to kids? Instead, we give the kid a small piece of plastic at the end of the season, and we say, “Look, you earned this because you were out there trying your best and you committed to playing for the whole year! Good job!” Is this telling the child that they’ll be rewarded for just showing up, or is it rewarding their commitment and inviting them to try again and to do better the next year? If the act of giving a child a piece of plastic, in the form of a trophy or medal, or a small certificate will inspire that child to keep trying what they have a passion for, then I’d love to give a participation trophy to every child, because pursuing what you enjoy and pursuing your passion is something that everybody should have the chance to experience, even if they’re not the best in the world at it.

And participation trophies aren’t a forever type of item. I remember getting all kinds of medals, ribbons and trophies when I was a kid from my participation. Believe it or not, I don’t keep them all locked away in a case, reminding me that I’m a champion and that I deserve things. They helped goad a young child into continuing trying and attempting to achieve, and then when I became a teenage and an adult and I stopped getting these trophies, I wasn’t hurt and I didn’t lose all self-worth. I grew out of getting trophies, because there is a difference between children and adults.

Another argument that came up was that the giving of participation trophies takes away from the feeling of accomplishment for people who actually succeed. If someone can get a trophy for just showing up, why should I try hard to get first place? Here’s a real shocker that I guess nobody realized. First-place trophies and participation trophies are not the same thing. Most first-place trophies are quite intricate, tall, and sometimes made of metal. I’ve never seen a participation trophy with any of those qualities. The fact is that children who get the trophies just for participation see that their trophy isn’t quite as amazing as the trophy that the kids in first place go, and they decide that they want to earn the cooler trophy next year. And the kids in first see how much cooler their trophy is than everyone else’s, and they decide that they also want to win the big trophy again next year. Everyone gets a greater desire to try harder the next year, which is the crux of the American Spirit and Dream that people came to this country for. If you work hard, you can achieve and you can get rewarded. Participation trophies drive America.

Let’s not forget for a moment that the largest group of people against participation trophies is older adults. Now, when the people most associated with being lazy due to participation trophies were children and receiving these awards, who were the ones dishing them out? The people who complain about them the most? Yep. Thanks guys, I’m sure it’s totally the children’s fault that you made them a certain way.

I’m not saying that every child needs to be given an award or a trophy just for existing. But, I don’t understand why we make these medals, trophies and ribbons out to be such a bad thing, when truly they might have an amazing effect on working to encourage children and to fight feelings of self-doubt or lowering self-worth. You don’t have to go out and buy a load of plastic trophies for your son/daughter/grandson/granddaughter/brother/sister’s AYSO soccer or Little League baseball team, but please stop demonizing participation trophies.

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