Should Every Kid Get a Sports “Participation” Ribbon?

One complaint I regularly hear these days is that we have become too soft and giving when it comes to rewarding kids for simply “being on the team” when it comes to youth sports (Sport Success 360).  Rather than have to earn awards through athletic accomplishments, some folks feel we have become too giving about rewarding kids for simply putting on a uniform and being on the team.  I have even heard this being called the “everybody gets an award” generation of youth sports!

The positives of reinforcing all kids…

Delving deeper, there are a couple schools of thought to consider as they apply to the question of “everybody being a winner in youth sports.”  First, using the most basic behavioral psychology models, sport psychologists would agree that shaping behaviors through positive reinforcement “works” in the sense that it usually increases motivation, perseverance, and goal compliance.  This does not mean that giving every young athlete a participation ribbon will turn him or her into a future All-Star, but it does suggest that positive reinforcement is generally a good thing and usually helps with self-esteem and self-confidence.  When kids feel good about themselves, they are more likely to try harder, and for some that extra effort might make the difference between a late-bloomer athlete and one that might have quit his career much sooner if he had not been recognized in some small way.

The negatives of reinforcing all kids…

The flip-side to easy rewards may be that it doesn’t raise the bar high enough for kids to continue to train hard and improve their mental toughness and athletic skills — after all, everybody gets a trophy for simply signing up for the team, right?

A second concern about rewarding everyone is that it could take away from the kids who actually earn their awards through on-field accomplishments — might they become upset that their hard work and efforts were recognized in the same way as other kids who hardly even played?

The key, it seems, is for coaches and sports league operators to find a middle ground and create both ways to recognize kids who participate on the team (but maybe not play much, or at all), as well as create more meaningful rewards for those athletes who truly accomplish great things on the field.  Using this approach, all kids are recognized, but some are provided more meaningful rewards because they have accomplished more meaningful things on the field.

What do you think about this issue?  Have we gone overboard as a society by rewarding every young athlete for simply putting on a sports uniform, or does it make sense to reinforce sport participation — even for the kids who never see the field?