Our 9-year-old son won his first sports championship last month, an El Dorado Hills recreation basketball crown for third graders. The boys on the team knew they won the title, even though the local recreation department doesn’t technically award championships for youth sports, because they are old enough to keep track of their won/loss record. Everyone knew going into the final game that the winner would be crowned champ, and everyone was excited when our boys came out on top by one point in a well-played contest.
We talked with our son afterward about how the participation trophy he received for the season was extra special because, in this case, the trophy signified his team won a title. We talked about how unique championships are, and that most athletes, youth or otherwise, can generally count the number of championships they win on one hand.
When we brought the trophy home, we ran into an ironic problem. There wasn’t enough room to put the “championship” participation trophy on our son’s bedroom shelf because of all the other participation trophies on it. Given that he has played a mix of sports each season since he was 6 years old and received a participation trophy for each of those seasons, he has more trophies than pairs of shoes.
Our son decided independently to move a few things around, while we again promoted the uniqueness of this season’s trophy. But the trophy gridlock developed into an interesting conversation between my wife and me. That carried over into a discussion with friends and fellow youth sports coaches, which has carried over into this column. The discussion topic: Do participation trophies bring our children and society more harm than good in the long run?
My wife and I discussed about how we earned very few trophies in our youth. I realize this makes us sound like old-timers, but trophies were reserved for championships in our generation. We received ribbons, pins or buttons for participation, and I have no idea where any of those items are from my youth. But I can tell you where the Little League championship trophy is from 12-year-old season and the team MVP trophy I received my senior year of high school baseball. Both are in a box in the attic.
Those trophies are special to me for the team accomplishments they represented. They are also special because they were the only ones I received. Our sons each have more than a dozen trophies for various youth sports and scouting activities. Each son has been fortunate enough to play on a team that has won a championship (our oldest son’s Little League team won a baseball title), but we wonder if they will appreciate the honors in the long haul. Or will they expect a participation award in everything they do in life?
We live in an era where T-Ball baseball players have their names printed on the back of their jerseys and on their baseball caps. Here’s the old-timer in me again, but I distinctly remember the first time my last name was printed on my jersey — varsity baseball in high school. Today we’re handing out honors reserved for special occasions and making them into everyday occurrences. Despite our best intentions, we very well could be creating an expectation that the participant should be rewarded equally with the victor — not simply on the youth sports field, but in the classroom, in the workplace and in life.
And don’t misunderstand me — youth sports are not about winning. No one dislikes winning, but youth sports offer myriad life lessons beyond winning. Participation and effort are the cornerstones of life. Where we run into an intriguing dialogue as a society is when participation occurs without the effort, but the expectation to receive the spoils of victory remains the same.
Dan Francisco is an El Dorado Hills-based public relations consultant to the high-tech industry.