Participation trophies are almost a given in today’s youth sports as children are constantly being assured that they are winners. Interestingly, trophies were once a rare thing. In the 1960s, however, awards began being mass-produced and marketed to teachers, coaches, and sporting-goods stores. Trophy and award sales are now an estimated $3 billion-a-year industry and many organized sport leagues spend more than 12 percent of their budget on these trinkets.
Awards are a good thing and a powerful motivator. Kids respond positively to praise, and they enjoy hearing that they’re talented, smart, and so on. Being the best and getting the recognition from parents and peers creates a huge since of pride. Winning is good and striving to be the best is even better.
Nonstop recognition, however, does not inspire children to succeed, and it can even cause some to underachieve. If all a child must to do is show up to get a trophy, some will do just that. They will not try to improve or learn problem-solving skills to become better.
Then, once a child does experience that first major failure, it can be crushing to their self-esteem. After all, they have been told they have special talents—given a trophy. That first difficulty or loss can cause a child to feel demoralized. Some will choose to work harder, but others may give up.
Furthermore, by the age 4 or 5, children aren’t fooled by trophies. Those who outperform know it and so do their team mates. Kids are surprisingly accurate in identifying who excels and who struggles.
Additionally, young kids know when they, themselves, are talented. If they are given an award for something they don’t do well, it clashes with their sense of ability and can be confusing. As kids get older, most start to view those “special” awards as something that just goes on the shelf.
Being competitive is part of our culture; it’s in our blood. Kids are always going to compete for something–win the game, get the best grade, who lost the most teeth. A parent’s, coach’s, and teacher’s job is to help kids see that progress over time is more important than a particular win or loss. Kids need to understand that setbacks are temporary and losing is a brief interruption between victories.