I’ve ruined a generation of people. Destroyed their competitive spirit. Contributed towards building a group of entitled millennials that can’t handle life’s pressures. And all the while, giving “kids today” a life that’s just too easy, too soft, too privileged.
At least, for those that believe participation trophies are the cause of these evils, then I’m an active contributor towards the problem.
And these people are all entitled to their opinions. But fortunately for me, all those opinions are wrong.
The Drama Unfolds
I coach both my son’s and daughter’s soccer teams. A wide range of four through seven year olds. And an even wider range of skill levels.
Which is fairly unavoidable at these ages. Some kids have been playing for years. Others are just starting out. Some want to win every play. Others are content to wander around. Some thrive on the competition. Others are motivated by the lure of the post-game snack.
But regardless of skill, contribution, or competitive spirit, at the end of each season, everyone gets a trophy. We talk about teamwork and improvement and how proud I am of the work they’ve done. And everyone is celebrated.
And I never realized a four dollar piece of plastic could invoke such a negative reaction from people.
We All Want the Same Things
“As useful as looking for objective reality can be, it is ultimately the reality as each side sees it that constitutes the problem in a negotiation and opens the way to a solution.” – Robert Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes
People love to hate participation trophies. Discussing them brings out a fervency that’s usually reserved for political debates.
James Harrison publicly promised to return his son’s trophies and let their shelves remain bare until they’ve earned a real one. Does anyone know why he let them accept the trophies in the first place?
And Glenn Beck advocated that parents confiscate their kids’ trophies and publicly smash them to teach kids a lesson on how the world really works. Did this mental image draw similarities to book burnings for anyone else?
But the anti-participation trophy movement isn’t limited to these stellar role models. Many are thoughtful parents who genuinely want what’s best for their children’s development. And who have real, valid concerns that we’re rewarding mediocrity and incentivizing kids away from excellence.
In this regard, both sides are looking for the same result. Both sides want to prepare kids to be successful. Both sides want to help set the next generation up to live impactful and fulfilling lives.
In this pursuit, we’re all united.
Why Do We Give Trophies At All?
“The goal of every organization is to have all winners. How can we achieve that if our recognition systems force us to create losers?” – Aubrey Daniels, Bringing Out the Best in People
Most companies have reward and recognition programs. And most offer benefits that are few and fleeting. We give cash rewards that are quickly spent and forgotten. We demotivate the majority of the organization by only recognizing a small fraction of their peers.
While lasting motivation is not caused by the tangible rewards that most companies hand out, but the social recognition that we can freely provide. Letting someone know that we appreciate their efforts. Helping them see the worth and the importance of their contribution.
Tangible rewards, such as cash, shirts, mugs, and even trophies, are most effective when they’re combined with social reinforcement. When we can associate the trophy with a positive memory. A memory that instills a sense of pride and accomplishment. The trophy merely acts as a reminder. A reminder of the behaviors that drove that sense of pride.
Because the whole purpose of recognition is to identify a behavior that we would like to see repeated.
So the question becomes, what behavior do we want to encourage? What behaviors do we want our kids to be proud of?
What Do We Want to Encourage?
A participation trophy doesn’t encourage participation. It encourages effort. It encourages commitment.
It tells kids that we appreciate the fact that they showed up and worked hard and tried their best.
That we’re proud of them for honoring their commitment. For working to improve. And for being a part of the team.
We’re letting kids know that we want them to keep trying and keep working to improve because those are behaviors that we value.
And at these ages we want kids to work hard and have fun. To enjoy the game so they stick with it and keep improving.
Success isn’t winning every game. It’s having the kids all come back next session to play again. To come back and keep improving.
Maybe they’re not a star this year. Maybe they’ll become one down the road. Or maybe they’ll just be happy to keep playing and stay active. And gain the benefits of teamwork and camaraderie that come with being part of a team.
So we want to encourage them to keep working and keep improving. We want to reinforce that this effort is the behavior that they should be proud of. And choosing to send a kid home empty-handed because they weren’t on a winning team doesn’t help accomplish this.
Is Effort More Important Than Winning?
“Very gifted people, they win and they win, and they are told that they win because they are a winner. That seems like a positive thing to tell children, but ultimately, what that means is when they lose, it must make them a loser.” – Josh Waitzkin
When kids understand that recognition is associated with winning, they’ll prioritize winning. And while that may seem like a positive, it reinforces a result that can be accomplished with poor behaviors.
In a study to test the impact of different methods of positive reinforcement, Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck presented 400 fifth-graders with an IQ test. After taking the test, half were praised for their intelligence (Wow…that’s a really good score. You must be smart.), while the other half were praised for their effort (Wow…that’s a really good score. You must have worked hard.).
The kids were then given the choice for a second test. They could choose between an easy version that they would surely do well on, or another that was more difficult but presented an opportunity to learn. Sixty-seven percent of those praised for their intelligence elected to take the easier test. While ninety-two percent of those praised for effort chose to take the more difficult one.
People, children and adults alike, will do what is reinforced. If we choose to encourage a result without also encouraging the behavior, we shouldn’t be surprised when people try to achieve the desired result by the easiest behavior available.
Do we want kids to choose easier competition to better ensure a win? Or would we rather they understand that commitment, work ethic, and a focus on self-improvement are the critical behaviors?
Do we want to teach kids that winners don’t make mistakes, so don’t take risks?
Or would we rather teach them that risks and failure are a part of life? And if it’s brought on by the right behaviors, then it is still something to be proud of?
Which Path Leads to Success?
The large majority of anti-participation trophy folk aren’t curmudgeons who relish telling everyone how “kids today” are just too soft. They’re parents who want their kids to be successful. People who want kids to be prepared for the challenges that life will throw at them. And they’re concerned that we’re sacrificing kids’ resiliency when recognition shifts from winning to effort.
And there’s no doubt that resiliency is a critical aspect of success. Life is challenging and we need to weather that storm and survive. So what behaviors are best suited towards helping us achieve success? What behaviors give us the best opportunity to come through life’s challenges and achieve our hopes and dreams?
In her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Angela Duckworth discusses the overwhelmingly positive correlation between grit and success. With examples ranging from West Point cadets to National Spelling Bee participants, Duckworth repeatedly shows that those with more grit are better able to overcome obstacles and stick with an effort despite challenges.
She highlights the relevance of both talent and effort as related to achievement with the following section of her book:
“What this theory says is that when you consider individuals in identical circumstances, what each achieves depends on just two things, talent and effort. Talent – how fast improvement in skill – absolutely matters. But effort factors into the calculations twice, not once. Effort builds skill. At the very same time, effort makes skill productive.”
Or more simply:
Talent x Effort = Skill
Skill x Effort = Achievement
Duckworth’s research has repeatedly shown that effort is the critical predictor of resiliency. And the critical driver towards achievement.
Another example involves the concept of deliberate practice, developed by Anders Ericsson and discussed in his book, Peak: Secrets of the New Science of Expertise. Ericsson found that deliberate practice, a process of constantly stretching ourselves and gaining immediate feedback, was the primary method in which performers master a craft.
The process of deliberate practice is based on embracing a series of short-term failures in the pursuit of a long-term achievement. It emphasizes that if we easily achieve a win today, we’re not stretching ourselves enough and as a result, we’re not improving. And we’re less likely to have long-term success.
Both grit and deliberate practice seek to push us towards long-term achievement. They both treat life like a marathon, not a sprint.
And they both demonstrate that effort and a focus on stretching ourselves towards improvement are critical to achievement. And critical to the success we’re hoping to set up our children for.
A Final Plug for the Benefits of Self-Esteem
A final reservation against participation trophies is the claim that they create unhealthy levels of self-esteem. A Men’s Health article on the subject made the bold (and unsubstantiated) claim that “inflated self-esteem has been found in criminals, junkies, and bullies, which is supposed to have been what the self-esteem movement was trying to steer children away from.”
Brene Brown studied shame and vulnerability over multiple years, directly interviewing 1,280 participants. In her TED talk, she correlated high levels of shame with a sense of disconnection. And she categorized the main difference between people who struggle with connection (and consequently shame) as being a sense of worthiness. A strong sense of love and belonging.
Our struggle with connection is brought on by a sense that we’re not worthy of it. That our self-image tells us we don’t deserve people’s love and belonging. Which brings on shame. Which brings the urge to numb those feelings through drugs and medications and bullying and credit card debt.
Whether we choose to believe Brene’s research or the Men’s Health “studies,” consider our own experiences. The vast majority of people that I know who’ve struggled with addiction or bullying didn’t do it because they had high self-esteem. It wasn’t because they felt a strong sense of love and belonging. It was always a symptom of trying to fill an internal void. Of trying to make up for the fact that they didn’t feel as if their current selves were enough.
If self-worth leads to connection. And connection is our antidote to shame and a world of deadening vices. Is self-esteem really something that we want to aggressively cap?
Which Practice Leads to Success? Which Practice Leads to Fulfillment?
We all want to set future generations up for success in a world that challenges us every day.
So how would we want to be treated? How would we want to be encouraged if we were on the receiving end?
Would we want someone to say, “Great try, let’s take another shot. We’ll get there.”
Or would we rather be treated like a failure until we get that win?
Which method would motivate us to keep improving?
In the mean time I’m going to keep rewarding effort. I’m going to recognize work ethic and commitment. I’m going to promote self-esteem and a strong sense of worthiness.
Because those are the skills that will lead to success.