Passionate About Cincinnati
and the Moms Who Live Here

The Dreaded Participation Trophy

She walked across the bulkhead studying what a volunteer hurriedly handed her, completely oblivious to all else as her relieved and excited smile painted pride on her face. When she reached the other side of the pool, her eyes met mine and she proclaimed in a giggly voice, “I got a trophy!  It’s so cool!” At eight years old, my daughter had received her first participation trophy…and I could not have been happier for her.

To get to a place as the recipient of the oft-criticized piece of plastic was a journey. Years of swim lessons welded a belief she would forever be stuck in “level 3.” A fear of being under water now served as her quicksand…the more she tried, the harder it became. Somewhere in this struggle she announced she wanted to be on the swim team. By dumb luck, her session was combined with level four and at the end of it, she could complete a lap…albeit consisted of three-strokes-hold-onto-the-lane-line-wash-and-repeat, it was a lap nonetheless and still a long cry from the try-out requirement of a full (non-barely-drowning) lap.

It is worth pausing here to admit I coach swimming and figured if she wanted to swim, I could teach her. At last, the previous fifteen-plus years I had spent teaching other children would pay off and I could save a bundle of cash by teaching my own daughter to swim! So began what was a summer of attempting to find a balance between being a mom and a coach only to fail miserably learn the lesson, “you cannot teach/coach your own kids.” Private lessons, here we come.

You cannot coach your own kid.

On the way to the first lesson, nervousness and disappointment got to her as she had her heart set on learning to swim from her own mom. Tears welled up in her deep brown eyes, overflowing as we reached the parking lot… she swam anyway. By the second one, she was begging me to not take her, absolutely convinced she couldn’t do it… she swam anyway. Third lesson was up and she surprised us by completing that full, required lap in a now smoothed-out style. A week later she tried out for a local swim team.

There is a picture I snapped of her at the tryout, sitting alone in her thoughts, waiting her turn. These are moments she blows me away…I would have been terrified and anxious. She just quietly waited. When the coaches came and asked her to perform the four strokes, she watched the other kids, mimicked them, and made the team. A few months later, logistics led us to another team with new coaches, faces, drills and requirements. There were days of frustration and freezing cold water, blue lips, more tears and gradually smiles and through it all, she swam anyway.

So at this meet where she was probably close to last place, when her eyes met mine and she held the newest item being blamed for a generation of entitlement, there was nothing expressed from us but pride.

A participation trophy doesn’t make a child entitled
anymore than an occasional treat causes obesity.

Entitlement is formed from years of decisions, intentional or not, and at times a lack of parenting, consequence and a slew of other actions. If explained the right way, these trophies carry quite another lesson – one in showing up, despite frustrations, despite immediate wants, despite not being the best. 

Show up: Having a unique vantage point of working with a ever-changing group of teenagers, the ability to “show up” no matter the current circumstance or feeling is a lost art. To learn this at an early age would set apart an individual from the crowd. It would be easy to fight this point as a child gets a trophy regardless if they show up but in the end, that goes back to the parent’s decision more than the child’s and if we really wanted to get deep, we are not privy to what is causing their lack of commitment.  As for our family, when you make a commitment, you show up and this is part of what the trophy symbolizes.

Early Confidence: After years of feeling discouraged, this trophy still sits proudly on her dresser. Did she magically transform to think she was the greatest swimmer and didn’t have to listen to her coaches anymore because they were lucky to have her as a swimmer? No, far from it. There are still days where she claims her skills don’t measure up and sometimes she is correct and sometimes it is her mind. In both cases, a conversation follows about what is needed to overcome either. We don’t fix it for her – she does the work.

In any sport, a kiddo can tell when others have more ability. A trophy doesn’t mask that, but it may give them the confidence to continue to try.  Early confidence, especially for kids who are keenly attune to when others are capable of what they are not, is an understated gift. What a loss it would be if only the best in each sport kept going past the age of participation trophies.  

Positive Reinforcement/Recognition: Google positive reinforcement and tons of parenting articles come up. Spin it to adults and google work and motivating factors and it becomes clear recognition is pretty high on the list. At an early age, particularly when a kid is developing personality, learning to put work in and feel the weight of that recognition (even if just physically) goes back to teaching the value of work versus simply being the best.  

Why, if we know that positive reinforcement and recognition work, would we not use it as a tool? In schools methods are in place to motivate through personal accountability and group effort alike; why would we not do this in sports?  Where schools have banquets and lists for honors, so do sports with such things as “MVP” and “Coach’s Award” and where schools have class rewards for a group effort, regardless of total equal student effort, sports have participation trophies.

In our house, a trophy comes with a conversation of the values that accompany it.

Many will disagree with me and that is fine; we all have our parenting styles and that is okay. In our house, a trophy comes with a conversation of the values that accompany it, values such as showing up, not giving up when it gets tough or boring, continuing to try no matter your skill level. These are values we hope she will carry through school and life. If at eight years old a small piece of plastic fixed to a marble base can inspire her to believe in the weight of those values, I will take it.

Although often blamed, a participation trophy is not what causes entitlement; that is the result of outside factors. The values feared to be sacrificed are instead taught through coaching, parenting and the conversations in between all the practices and competitions.  In fleeting moments, you may be lucky enough to catch clues that the lessons have stuck.  Last week such an opportunity appeared when my child picked up a $4.99 trophy,  instantly turned to her brother and announced, “if you ever get a trophy like this, it is fake.  You didn’t earn this.”  At the end of the season, when the coach hands your child what will become a temporary fixture on the nightstand, remember this trophy symbolizes exactly what you make of it, nothing more and nothing less. 

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