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Are Participation Awards Hurting Our Youth Athletes?

Once upon a time, youth athletes received trophies or awards based solely on merit, for winning a championship or other event.

But over the years, such selective rewarding of success has been replaced by the participation trophy, or the idea that every kid who takes part in a sport or school activity should walk away with something, whether it’s a trophy, medal or a certificate.

Bring up either side of the issue, and you’re likely to get a lively, sometimes heated discussion from parents, coaches and educators. theSeason recently had this debate in one of their “Have Your Say” articles. Some believe kids need to earn an award, that it takes hard work to achieve a goal, whether it’s winning on the field or mastering a skill. Others believe in an environment where kids are entitled to be recognized, that failing to get an award will crush their self-esteem and scar them emotionally.

Some leagues and organizations have decided the old way is better. According to a recent article in the Pocono Record, a rec baseball league in Reisterstown, Maryland, discontinued its policy of giving out participation trophies to players ages 4 to 8 at the end of the season. Andy Paladino, the program’s commissioner, is especially concerned about the issue of entitlement when rewarding kids for simply showing up.

“I would be interested to see how some of these kids who received them in the past are doing at their jobs now,” Paladino, an investment banker, told the Record.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison made headlines in 2015 when he returned participation trophies given to his 6- and 8-year-old sons. His reason was simple; they hadn’t earned them.

“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,” Harrison stated in an Instagram post.

Of course, not everyone believes such awards are harmful to young athletes. In a 2015 blog post for the National Alliance for Youth Sports, author Richard Greenberg believes such awards are great reminders to kids of the overall experience, and their commitment to the sport they enjoyed.

Recalling his own memories as a Little Leaguer, Greenberg wrote, “I knew my trophy wasn’t about my on-field achievements. It simply reminded me that I was on a team with my school pals. … My trophy was a souvenir — a physical representation of the experience — just like the medals and t-shirts people get when they participate, but don’t win, marathons, 10 or 5Ks, bike rides and many other events.”

Dan Keller, a youth coach in Huntington Beach, California, who operates the online baseball resource Dugoutcaptain.com, says everyone on his son’s team received a medal for participating. But they also had other awards players had to earn: Player of the Year, Most Improved, and a Gettin’ Better award for the best teammate or hardest worker.

“We made sure everyone got something. … But then we explained that only certain kids earn the awards (with an) emphasis on EARN,” Keller told theSeason.

There will always be polarizing views on the subject of handing out awards to kids “just for being there,” and whether or not they cause long-term negative damage. There’s also the question of when to stop, and give trophies for actual accomplishments that can only be earned, like a championship or MVP. Ultimately, the decision rests with each organization and its administrators and parents, if they’re given the opportunity to provide input.

While there has been some pushback on his league’s decision to stop distributing trophies to all kids, Paladino says most parents are fine with the new policy. As one dad told the Pocono Record, “if you’re the champ, you get a trophy. You have to learn to take the good with the bad.”

From GameChanger and Stephen Kerr

Weigh in on this topic here: Have Your Say: Should Kids Get a Participation Trophy?

Youth sports, Coaches and Parents