When I teach column writing in my sports writing and reporting classes, I base my lecture around the idea of avoiding hot takes.
This coming spring, I’m thinking of titling the lecture “Don’t write about participation trophies.”
It seems like at least once a year, a coach or athlete goes on some kind of rant about participation trophies, how they’re ruining sports and a sign that kids today just don’t get it and are the worst. The latest one was from Louisville women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz last week
Right now the generation of kids that are coming through, everybody gets a damn trophy, OK? You finish last, you come home with a trophy. You kidding me? I mean, what's that teaching kids? It's OK to lose. And unfortunately, it's our society. It's what we're building for. And it's not just in basketball; it's in life. You know, everybody thinks they should get a job. Everybody thinks they should get a good job. No, that's not the way it works. But unfortunately that's what we are preparing for. Because you finish fifth, you walk home with this nice trophy, parents are all excited.
Let’s be clear: This is the most ridiculous “argument” we have in sports. In fact, I’d argue it’s dangerous. For one thing, the team that beat Walz’s team came up in the era of participation trophies. So clearly some players still care about winning.
It’s ridiculous because it assumes facts not in evidence. It assumes that millennials (and let’s be frank: this is a “millennials suck” mindset) actually like and treasure these participation trophies, and that has somehow made them soft and entitled. Sorry, I’m not seeing it or buying it. I teach millennials, and on the whole I find that they work hard and care deeply. They’re certainly harder working and more engaged than I was as a college student.
I asked my students on Twitter if they remembered getting participation trophies when they were kids. It’s a small, unscientific and imperfect sample, but it’s instructive:
@bpmoritz I don't think so. If I did they had so little impact on me that I don't remember them. Giving a trophy to a kid is dumb.— Wolf Counselor (@EvanOutOfTen) December 4, 2016
@bpmoritz I remember getting one for like a third grade art contest or something, and being kind of upset I didn't actually place.— Anthony Dolce (@adolce95) December 4, 2016
@bpmoritz Got them for all my youth sports. Didn't think much of it as a kid b/c it's the norm. I expected it. Wasn't happy nor disliked it.— Matt Drexler (@MatthewDrexler3) December 4, 2016
@bpmoritz didn't care for participation trophies. But if I did win something like spelling/student of the month, hell yeah I cared!— Emily Milagros (@EmSoGros) December 4, 2016
@bpmoritz I threw any trophies away almost as soon as I got them.— Lyd Goerner (@Goernerd) December 4, 2016
@bpmoritz Yes, I got them. I still have them in my room at home. At the time, I didn't really think much of getting them...— Natalie Brophy (@brophy_natalie) December 4, 2016
@bpmoritz ...but now I'm glad I have them to serve as memories of all the activities I was able to participate in as a kid.— Natalie Brophy (@brophy_natalie) December 4, 2016
@bpmoritz we got like certificates for being a part of whatever sport we played in high school. Kept them but honestly not sure why...— Devin O'Shaughnessy (@OShaughnessy7) December 4, 2016
@bpmoritz hated them, always seemed pointless and stupid. Not everyone needs a award/medal/trophy.— Devin O'Shaughnessy (@OShaughnessy7) December 4, 2016
@bpmoritz Never got participation trophies. I think I maybe got ribbons for a few events in middle school but those are long gone.— Jordan McGee (@ozmcgee44) December 5, 2016
So no, it doesn’t look like participation trophies have made these kids soft. Of course it hasn’t. Kids know when they’re getting a trophy just for participating. They’re smart.
I’ve never heard of, read, or seen any kind of research that has found a causal link between millennials’ attitudes and resilience and the existence of participation trophies. It feels very Gladwellian —looking for one specific thing that’s tangentially related and extrapolating that out as the root of a social ill. The participation trophy rant is just a way for cranky old men to be cranky old men.
But it’s also a dangerous attitude. Look at Walz’s words again. “What’s that teaching kids? It’s OK to lose.”
In Talladega Nights, we all laughed when Ricky Bobby said “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” That’s exactly what Walz is saying. It’s saying that the only thing that matters is winning. Winning is everything. Losing can’t be OK.
That’s a terrible lesson to teach kids. It makes them think that results are the only thing that matters, that how you get them means nothing. This is especially true for young kids. Youth sports should be about fun, about learning teamwork and strategy and getting exercise. Keeping score is fine, but to turn everything into “winwinwinwinWIN!” just fuels the toxic hyper-competitive, hyper-masculine culture that poisons too much of sports. It’s honestly one of the reasons I’m so happy my daughter is a theater kid.
No kid celebrates getting a participation trophy. Participation trophies are harmless.
It’s the attitude of Jeff Walz and the anti-participation trophy brigade that really teaches a dangerous lesson.