July 25, 2017

Enough, already! Recently, I’ve read three different Washington Postcolumnists bemoan our “Everybody-Gets-A-Trophy” Culture. Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebacker James Harrison made headlines when he returned his sons’ participation trophies because they “didn’t earn them.”

I call bullshit!

Think about it. What is the opposite of “Everyone-Gets-a-Trophy Culture?” Oh, yes, — that good, old-fashioned American — “Winner-Take-All-Culture.”

I get it. Our kids already are pampered, self-centered brats who feel entitled to the good life they didn’t earn. Why reward them with trophies for “just showing up?”

Because — sorry James Harrison — Participation is NOT nothing.

Participation, while maybe not everything, matters. Life, family, friendship, team sports, rewarding jobs are composed in large measure of “just showing up.”

Everybody likes to win. We humans, particularly Americans, are by nature a competitive lot. From our crazed following of favorite pro and college teams to our reality/contest show addictions, we like to win, even if it is vicarious.

Ask me sometime about attending the Saints Super Bowl Win in 2010 — “the most FUN day of my life!”

Winning feels good and feeds our competitive fires. Losing, in contrast, sucks.

Trust me, kids know. Even in pee-wee games where no one keeps score, they know how many goals and who won. Regardless of their ages, kids know which teams are the ones to beat and whether their teams “suck” and have no chance.

Kids are also cynical. At least, mine are. They regard “participation trophies” with some mixture of wry amusement and contempt. My now-teenagers roll their eyes at the “cooperative” games they played at UU camp and Quaker school. No kid in America believes his/her “participation” trophy is the equivalent of the Championship Trophy.

And yet…

Participation, the stuff of team sports — showing up, sweating, working hard, suffering achy muscles, twisted ankles, and broken bones, waking up at 5:30 on Saturday mornings — is what makes winning possible. It is more than NOT NOTHING; it is essential. And it should be acknowledged.

Coach Lombardi, also less famously said, “Individual commitment to a group effort — that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”

While it is easy and fashionable to mock “everybody-gets-a-trophy,” we must also look critically at the effects of a “winner-take-all” approach to kids’ sports.

Petula Dvorak recently wrote about her 10-year-old son trying out for ice hockey. The results were …not good. Unless children become super-competitive and devoted to one sport, they get locked out early.

This was our introduction to the madness that has become youth sports in this country. And, as my colleague Michael S. Rosenwald reports, fewer kids are joining teams because of it.
Fun? Few of the little kids were smiling.
It’s official. Parents have just about killed the fun of playing team sports.
They’ve done it with technique clinics, personal trainers, elite travel leagues, pricey tournaments — fine-tuning kids for athletic glory before they’ve amassed a respectable archive of knock-knock jokes.
This kind of hyper-competitive mania shuts out the kids who aren’t just in it to win it.
“The system is designed to meet the needs of the most talented kids,” Mark Hyman, a professor of sports management at George Washington University, told The Washington Post. “We no longer value participation. We value excellence.” 

I can appreciate the lure — the need to develop skills and experience to keep up with better competition and the desire to compete on elite clubs and travel teams that drive this hyper-competitiveness.

What I am suggesting is that in ridiculing “participation” awards, we instill the idea that “if you’re not going to be the best” or “if you’re not going to win,” you shouldn’t bother playing. Our reality and competition shows (e.g., Chopped, The Voice, Project Runway) feed this attitude — they give one big winner all the money and the “losers” go home.

I challenge that notion. Being part of a team, whether soccer, lacrosse, basketball or a software development team, is a critical part of growing and learning. Knowing that some individuals are superstars but each of us has unique skills to offer are universal life lessons. Luke knows that he needs to show up with his long pole to play defense for Peter or Jake to score seven goals. Barrett knows that her soccer team is depending on her as the starting (sometimes only) goalkeeper.

Although they’ll never be all-stars or play pro sports, they are each an important part of the team. The fact that they show up for practice, put on pads, support their teammates, and play hard when given the opportunity — that’s NOT nothing. While it may not feel as good as winning, especially winning it all, it is a job well done and should be acknowledged as such.

The idea that only one can win and everything is a zero-sum contest bothers me. It is a construct of sports and games that when applied to other areas is often disingenuous and fosters a cruel, cut-throat society. Many of the “losing” cooks or designers on the reality shows go on to open restaurants or launch successful careers. Most “work” in the real world requires a team of individuals with various strengths and skill sets. Moreover, there is more than enough “work” or opportunity available to promote collaboration and cooperation, rather than ruthless competition.

Stepping down from my soapbox, I admit that participation trophies are stupid. But it’s the trophy part, not the participation part, to which I object.

One approach I prefer to participation “trophies” is team awards or coaches awards. One team gave out decorated paper plates that acknowledged each person’s accomplishment, whether it was making the team laugh, high-fiving the scorer, or having the most fashionable socks. No one pretends these take the place of a Championship Trophy, but these playful “awards” acknowledge each kid’s participation, thank him/her for contributing to the team, and put some “fun” back into kids’ sports.

Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game. - Michael Jordan

Never, ever underestimate the importance of having fun. - Randy Pausch

WRITTEN BY: LISA P. SMITH Web developer, writer/editor/blogger, NOLA native, mom, political junkie, concerned citizen, & tech geek | @lpsrocks |

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