By Lucy Celentano
As I clean out my cluttered closet during my senior year in preparation for moving out of my childhood home and starting the next chapter of my life in college, I uncover a dusty box filled to the brim with junior recreational sports trophies. From soccer, to dance and softball, I did not find my niche until fifth grade when I pursued competitive gymnastics, which I stuck with until the commencement of my high school career.
As I cycled through many sports looking for one that I wanted to devote my time to, one theme remained constant: participation trophies were distributed at the termination of every season. Throughout all of these sports, I have no recollection whatsoever of extraordinary behavior or participation worthy of an end-of-season reward. Currently, the vast majority of recreational youth sports distribute trophies, medals, certificates, and other forms of materialistic praise to participants. Not only does this practice reward mediocre behavior, it also conveys the idea to children starting from a young age that materialistic items are the ultimate goal following hard work. Trophies should not be distributed to all participants in youth sports.
Distribution of trophies may be proctored with the intention of encouraging players to play their hardest and prevent a sentiment of disappointment if only one winner is chosen. While this concept is beneficial in theory, it promotes the idea that at the termination of hard work, the most important motive is receiving a reward. Whether it be a trophy or a medal, players associate an item as the equivalent of their hard work (or lack thereof). The Journal of Consumer research conducted a study in 2015 and concluded that children who are reinforced with material items develop two main beliefs: “Success is defined by the quality and number of material good an individual owns and acquiring certain surmount challenges products makes people more attractive.” This “everyone’s a winner” momento can yield serious challenges as the child matures, such as superficial behavior. Hard work is required to accomplish any sort of goal, and rewarding every participant regardless of their effort or ability to throughout the season, says otherwise.
To add, players receiving rewards for mediocre performance are reinforced for less than satisfactory behavior. In many sports leagues, individuals that do not show up or do not put in the maximum amount of work are still rewarded, installing unrealistic expectations about the requirements of genuinely being a “winner”. Simply attending games and practices and doing what participants are instructed to do also gives young athletes the wrong idea about what it takes to truly be an athlete. Overcoming obstacles in order to eventually reach the finish line is a skill that all young children should learn, considering this is a prominent theme that will remain with them throughout their educational and professional careers as adults. In the “Top Dog: The Series of Winning and Losing,” Psychology series of books, authors Bronson and Ashley Merryman claim that under pressure and competition, 25% of individuals are unaffected, 25% perform worse than they would without these circumstances, and 50% perform their best. It is evident that students and adults alike, both are more prone to peak performance under competitive circumstances.
Rewarding athletes with participation trophies validates the wrong type of behavior. Individuals should learn from a young age that being a winner requires much more than attending practices and putting in the minimum amount of work. At the end of the day, a “fist bump” or words of encouragement may be the best reward a child can receive.