Participation Trophy Culture: Are We Helping or Hurting Our Children?


Over the last few of days, Pittsburgh Steeler’s player James Harrison, has been quite popular with his comments about participation trophies. According to his social media pages, his sons came home with participation trophies which he made them return. What exactly is a participation trophy? It’s that trophy you got in little league just for showing up. His argument is that since you didn’t earn it or actually win anything, that you shouldn’t be given one. I actually agree.

I think due to the fact that I’m the oldest of 6 kids and I’m now 31, I have seen the huge difference between when I played sports, my siblings, and even the children after them. The fact of the matter is, our kids have become sheltered. In the era of No Child Left Behind, we have left our children behind. Currently, our children are performing the 17th out of 1st world countries on educational testing. If you do research, the countries that perform well in the classroom tend to have the healthiest economies.

Who is doing the best? China, Japan, South Korea, and Finland all scored very well. All are doing well economically in retrospect to what they have historically done. China has the most new billionaires in the world. They have so much new money there that they are literally hiring people to fly to China and teach the new wealth “how to act rich“. The best secret to a healthy economy is a healthy education system.

The “American Dream” has taken on many meanings in our short 239 years of existence in this country. Originally, the American Dream was built on the backs of immigrants who built our infrastructure, and more. Finally, here was a country that you find opportunity if you worked hard enough. During the Great Depression, Americans had to survive and the “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality was born. People had to fight for everything they needed.

After the success of Roosevelt’s New Deal and the influx of money coming in from the victory of World War II, the 1950s brought Americans more money than they knew what to do with.


The golden age of advertisements, juke boxes, household appliances, catalogues, and automobiles was born. White picket fences, cookie cutter homes, and Leave It to Beaver described an era of affluence that the country hadn’t seen before.

Because of this, you saw a change in how children were raised. The Great Depression era parents wanted to enjoy that affluence with their Baby Boomers. The Baby Boomers wanted their children to have a better life than they had. It seems to be a natural parental instinct to want your children to have more opportunity. As we made it to the 1980s, educators created the Self-Esteem Movement. This was due to studies on child development during that time that concluded that if everyone told children they were special and wonderful that they would be confident and fulfill those praises.

I grew up in that generation. I remember that I did very well at school but that there definitely was this self-esteem push. We all got Garfield stickers on our papers whether we did well or not. We all got participation trophies in sports whether we were best player or worst player.

I won my 1st trophy at the age of 5. It was a horse trophy believe it or not. When I was young, my family had a farm in addition to our house. I started riding horses at that early age and somewhere out there is a picture of me in a full outfit including hat, vest, chaps, boots, and spurs before I went out to that 1st event. The event itself consisted of me sitting on the horse, someone else leading the horse on the ground, and me giving basic commands to the horse to turn. The only reason I won that event was because it was raining, as it likes to do a lot in the northwest, and I was the only kid that actually showed up. I remember the feeling I got when I received my trophy. It was awesome.

The problem was, even though it was technically a competition, no one else was there and I didn’t actually earn it. I just showed up. The next time I competed I was 6 and in an older class that contained people 3 times my age. I think I did OK at it but I was very young and didn’t place. I remember going home and crying. My father asked me what was wrong and I told him that I was upset because I didn’t win. My father kind of humored me and with a smile stated that I was in class with people 3 times my age and that I was not going win at everything in life. In my 6 year old wisdom I remember thinking that was something that I simply did not agree with. What do you mean I can’t win at everything?  This was lesson for me that I learned early about myself and life. I learned that I’m very competitive and that life was not going to be as easy as just showing up. The world would not fall into my hands because I was me.

The problem is that our children today do not learn this lesson early or sometimes at all. They are taught that if you lose that it’s OK because someone will still hand you a trophy like you did. The result is there is no drive to get better and there is a false sense of entitlement. When my siblings played sports and I got to watch them, I noticed some changes. Namely, they stopped keeping score in some of the sports until much later in age than my age group.The only time we didn’t keep score when I played sports was t-ball when I was 6. To avoid sounding like the grandfather that tells you what it was like in my day, it’s an actual problem.

Where is there a competitive situation in life where you don’t keep score? What job do you perform that has deadlines and numbers you have to meet that rewards you when you don’t meet them? What college class have you ever taken where you get an F and they say that’s OK, here’s a trophy and a refund for your tuition! The real world does not work like that. It’s very hard and we are sheltering our children to the point where they can’t function when they get to the real world. It’s gotten much worse with the increased integration with technology and how we function on a day-to-day basis. In a me-first instant everything world, the youngest generations are not only told they are winners when they arent, they have technology that takes away a chunk of the work for them that is left to do. They expect it done for them and they expect it yesterday. Then they get to college and don’t know how to deal when they get a C.

If you have known me or followed me at all, you know that I’m a proponent of positive teaching and coaching. There are ways to get people to buy in to what is both best for them and a team and keep their confidence in tact.

If someone earns a trophy, by all means give them one. But if they lose, do not glorify the loss. The point of the loss is to learn how to win. If there is glorification of the loss there is no lesson to learn. We all know how much loss life provides. Let’s teach our children how to ACTUALLY win.

You can watch a show that aired recently on these very topics on Brian Gumble’s Real Sports below:




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