James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers created quite a social media stir on Instagram over the weekend by posting about some participation awards that his children “earned.”
Harrison posted a photo of the trophies with the following text:
I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy.
Like most things, this reminds me of a story.
My father, having moved to South Carolina for his retirement, thought that he would like to re-enact the
horror joy of coaching me as a thirteen-year-old baseball star by coaching a team of similarly aged children in his new town. So he and one of his best friends and neighbors (both of them approaching seventy) decided that they’d coach a team of 13-14 year old boys.
Only one problem. The team sucked. The kids didn’t try hard. They didn’t listen. They showed up late for practice—if they showed up at all. I don’t think they won a single game during the season.
So, the league gave my dad some participation trophies to distribute to the kids. My understanding is that it went something like this:
Listen. I’m gonna tell you something that none of your parents are ever going to tell you. None of you are any good. And it’s not because you couldn’t be someday. It’s because you’re all spoiled. None of you want to work. None of you want to get better. You think that you’re going to make the high school team playing like that? Not a chance.
So I’ve got a box of trophies here. I’m throwing them out. You don’t deserve them.
And thus ended the season.
If I were in his shoes, I likely would have done exactly the same thing. Those kids were middle schoolers. They should have known better. At that age, if you don’t win, you don’t deserve a trophy.
But there’s another side to the tale, one that isn’t being told much in this rush to agree with Harrison.
What about the four-year-old girl? My daughter is playing soccer for the first time this season. They don’t keep score. They don’t have a tournament. Shouldn’t she still get something? Some sort of extrinsic motivation for her to come back and play another season?
My son was beyond overjoyed to get a “Most Improved” certificate when he was five years old. No, he didn’t earn that. But it was enough to encourage him to keep playing after a season when he was the only five-year-old on a team full of six-year-olds. He didn’t even score a single goal that year. A lot of kids might have quit. That certificate that his coach made—probably as an afterthought—has him playing U9 Club Soccer as a seven-year-old now, and loving every minute of it.
And you know something? This past Spring, he “earned” his first trophy. He was unbelievable as the primary goalkeeper for his team—he didn’t allow a single goal during the tournament. Unfortunately, they had to rotate goalies according to league rules, and some other kids didn’t fare as well. Nevertheless, thanks in large part to his stellar play, his team finished as runners-up in the league tournament.
You can see it in his face, can’t you? The disappointment of not winning. Yes, he’s holding a trophy, but it’s not the trophy he wanted. He wanted the champion’s trophy.
But I remember exactly what I was telling him in this photo. I said, “It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to be upset. But this is the first trophy that you’ve ever earned. And that means something. Be proud. You did a great job, buddy.”
Those other participation trophies he got didn’t diminish the value of this one at all—rather, they increased it. He now looks at those other trophies as, “Eh, those were okay when I was younger. But now I want to WIN.”
What’s the cutoff? Is a participation trophy okay when you’re six, but not when you’re seven? I honestly don’t know. But I think that somewhere, lost in all of the hullabaloo is the meaning of what a participation trophy actually is—we want to encourage young people to participate, don’t we? Aren’t we always complaining about “fat, lazy kids” who sit around and play xBox all day?
If we want kids to go out and participate in life, maybe they should be rewarded more than the kids who just don’t. After all, much more than half of success in life is just showing up on time.
Anybody who takes a hard and fast line on this is probably somebody who never won a thing in his whole life. As somebody who has won championships in literally every sport I’ve ever played, my feelings aren’t hurt by a participation trophy for a child. Yours probably shouldn’t be either.