Should kids get participation trophies?

soccer trophyParticipation trophies are small awards given to all members of a team or group who shared an experience. Typically, we think of participation trophies when we think of youth soccer teams, or youth school classes, or youth summer camps. But in general, participation trophies are given out to beginners as a way to show that they completed a certain level of expertise – they “participated” in an event or class. As people grow up and get more experienced, then trophies are either awarded only to the top placing contestants, or if they are given to all members in a team, then the top ranking teams are typically awarded trophies. This would be true for 1 st , 2 nd and 3 rd place, typically. But in some events, only the absolute winner gets a trophy.

A lot of press has been given to participation trophies over the last couple of years. Some people think the practice of handing trophies out to all members of a team just because they were on the team is a bad thing – that it enforces ideas of entitlement. Or that participation trophies diminish the value of winning if everyone on the team gets the same trophy. Depending on your viewpoint and the circumstances, both opinions are true and both are false.

Participation trophies that are handed out to all members of a team, regardless of their team result, even if they lost every single game, still have value. Particularly if they are handed out to youth players who are just beginners. Then you are rewarding them for trying, for joining a team sport and being part of team, maybe for the first time in their lives. If they stick with the team for the entire season, then yes, this is something worth rewarding them for. At this point in their development, any positive reinforcement that says “Good Job! You stuck with it and didn’t give up!” is well worth it. As the children get older and have several seasons of experience, then the value of participation trophies tends to diminish, unless it is seen as a memento of the season with the team – like a baseball trophy with a glove figurine that holds a real baseball – one that has been signed by each of their team mates. Or if everyone on the team is given a useful item like a bag tag that has their team name and year on it – one that they can attach to their duffel bag zipper. These items become reminders of the good times they had as a team.

When players get older, if participation trophies are handed out to all teams and all members on a team regardless of how well or poor they did during a season, then yes, they hold less value. Players know who won and lost, who had the best season, and who are the best players. Trophies won’t change that. So you might as well reinforce their perceptions with awarding trophies to the winners and those who excelled. And if the entire team does well and performs well at a tournament, then yes, get everyone on the team a trophy, too, because that rewards exceptional performance.