Applied coachingYouth strength and conditioning

Participation awards – what's the point?

Recently, I came across a Facebook post from a friend of mine, lamenting their child’s school sports day and the lack of traditional competitive events. It’s no secret that our educational systems and sporting events are leaning more and more towards the trend of handing out “participation” awards to all children involved. Our schools have moved away from traditional grade classifications and less harshly worded feedback – But is this a positive or negative thing?

Consider this from James Harrison NFL player for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He posted on Instagram that he was returning his sons’ participation trophies because he didn’t want them to think they were “entitle to something just because they tried their best.”
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This might seem an extreme response, but is it? It seems many people offer a similar view. What are the potential pros/cons of the participation trophy culture?
Potential pros:
Increased participation – with the removal of the threat of embarrassment or negative attention for coming last, it’s possible that we may increase the number of children who want to engage in sport and physical activity. This obviously has numerous benefits, physically and psychologically
Potential increased talent pool – theoretically, with more kids involved in any given sport, this may lead to an increased talent pool for later selection to higher levels of performance.
Potential cons:
Discourages effort – if all children are guaranteed the same outcome, what is the point of investing yourself in performing to your best? Think about it – why do sales teams offer bonuses? Isn’t it an incentive to outperform others? Isn’t a trophy in a school sports day the same thing?
Discourages mastery – I remember as a child being assigned to the “C” team at the local football club. Being disappointed with this I worked away for the duration of the season and the next year was assigned to the “B” team. That season I did the same thing, earning my way to the “A” team. I believe the experience of being “not good enough” was a primary source of motivation for me to improve as a player! Without that motivation, I’m sure I wouldn’t have invested the same time in getting better!
What about the less academic? – The educational system still rewards those with academic prowess. But what about those children who may be less academically inclined? Without wanting to subscribe to the “jocks and nerds” stereotypes, aren’t we denying those with athletic prowess the opportunity to demonstrate their aptitude? And with that the loss of potential recognition, self-esteem and positive reinforcement?
No victor = no loser – John Maxwell famously said “Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.” It’s arguable that we are far more reflective in defeat than in victory. If we remove the victor, by default we remove the loser. By removing the defeat, it’s arguable that we remove the self-searching that can come with defeat. I think we can all see we are more and more becoming a society where blame is always laid at the feet of others. However, in order to become better it’s important to acknowledge our mistakes, own them and correct them or work on them to improve. Essentially, failure is feedback. Whether it is a c in a math’s test, or 5th place in a 100m sprint. If the failure is removed, are we also removing the feedback and thus the opportunity to learn and improve?
False reality– we are not removing the threat of negative feedback or setbacks, we are only delaying it. At some point, any child in sport will encounter a setback – injury, de-selection, rejection. Outside of sport no one is immune to setbacks in careers, relationships or health. By delaying this experience, are we losing the opportunity to encounter these experiences in smaller doses with less repercussions? For example, the experience of disappointment from a poor childhood athletic performance is surely less consequential than failing to land that job later in life? Can setbacks earlier in life help with building resilience for hurdles experienced later in life? If so, are we doing our children a disservice by removing this opportunity for them to develop these important life skills? Surely those without this experience will be hit far harder by disappointment later in life?
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It’s intrinsic – Competition is a natural thing. Line up a group of children and inevitably they will race each other. If you don’t provide this in a formalized setting, they will still do it. It might not be sportsday, but you can guarantee they will still want to see who the fastest is
The kids know – It doesn’t take long for kids to figure out a lie. Whether is Santa, the Easter bunny, or the birds and the bees. Kids are pretty astute and can catch us out in a lie over time. Couple this with the intrinsic nature of competition and ultimately the kids will know who won and who lost. We can cover it with participation awards, but they still know little Jonny beat them!
From the few pros listed above, contrasted with the numerous cons, you can probably guess which direction I lean in. However, I think a balance is required. I don’t think a “win at all costs mentality” is beneficial for the children, Being on either side of a 25-0 game like this one in spain isn’t really beneficial for the development of either team. Ultimately, a closely fought competition is the most beneficial for both sides, bringing out the best performance from both sides. I believe the following points in coaching children are key:

  • Understand that today’s performance isn’t indicative of future success/failure
  • Acknowledge where performance fell short, using honest feedback, avoiding emotive or negative language.
  • Encourage children to embrace their errors (teachable moments) as opportunities to learn and improve, not to think of them as reflections of their self-worth or value
  • Encourage the child to continue to invest effort in becoming they are capable of
  • Continue to foster a growth mindset!

What do you think of participation awards? Are you for/against? I would love to hear your thoughts!
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