The last few years I have observed and gauged the effect of participation awards in sports, holding off on developing a detailed opinion until I felt I fully understood the effects they have on kids. In my experience the loudest voices have usually been the most critical, with threats that if we continue to reward kids who don’t deserve to be rewarded they will eventually develop into undeserving adults with no work ethic and unrealistic expectations for rewards. Pretty harsh assertions, but are they true?
The participation award movement
I’m not really sure when or how this topic became a growing issue of concern, as participation recognition efforts have been around for as long as I can remember. As a youth athlete in the 1970’s, I recall our teams regularly receiving certificates of participation, with the more talented kids earning bigger awards based on their performances. I do not ever recall any criticisms of doling out token certificates, in fact, I don’t think I even heard a single debate about it.
Today, participation certificates are still used, but some leagues have taken an advanced step by providing kids small medals (and similar awards) as a reward for finishing out a season. Could the change from a paper reward to a small medal be the reason for some adults being up in arms that we are destroying the character of today’s youth?
Kids who don’t see the field much have many challenges when it comes to making all practices, sitting patiently on the bench, and staying ready for those rare instances at the end of games when they are used for a few token minutes. Is it such a terrible thing to minimally reward them for being a great teammate and hanging in there through those challenges? Is it really coddling to provide the most minimal way of saying “good job” to kids who rarely receive any kind of recognition from success on the field?
As I come full-circle with this discussion I offer the following thoughts on what participation awards do — and don’t do — as it applies to kids cognitive and emotional development:
What participation awards potentially offer:
- Help form a positive identity. When kids are proud to be a part of a team and feel recognized for their efforts (as minimal as they might be), they take ownership of the experience and usually make personal decisions with the team’s best interest at heart. Additionally, kids feel better about themselves proudly wearing team colors, a big boost to self-esteem that can trigger other pro-social behaviors — including better grades in school.
- Connect sports to healthy living. If a participation award motivates a kid to try harder and play again next year, is that really a bad thing? Studies show kids who commit to sports are more likely to take academics seriously, less likely to flunk out, less likely to join gangs, and more likely to eat and train in healthy ways.
- Models the importance of finishing what you start. Again, if a participation award helps motivate a youngster to stay with the team and finish out a tough season instead of quitting, isn’t that a great example of perseverance and commitment (qualities we like to see kids develop)? Kids who learn the value of finishing things they start prepare the groundwork for using the same mindset as an adults, leading to greater career satisfaction and success.
What participation awards do not do:
- Create a sense of entitlement. In my experience I have never once heard a youngster say that he or she was deserving of a participation award. In fact, I would argue more kids have told me the opposite, that if anything they were surprised to receive something even though they did little to earn it — some have even expressed embarrassment.
- Artificially showcase the idea you’re a winner. Again, as someone who works with kids almost every day, I can’t think of a single instance where I have witnessed a kid boast about his participation awards and certificates. What I have seen, however, are countless examples where the award served as motivation to improve and experience greater success as a result.
- Provide misleading equivalencies between starters and reserves. This one has the potential for issues developing I suppose, but only if leagues/teams make no efforts to discern between winners and losers (which rarely happens). The reality is that most leagues provide bigger trophies for winning teams than they do last place teams, and most teams provide bigger awards for star players than they do kids who are reserves.
- Teach kids to devalue hard work and always expect to be rewarded. This assertion implies that by rewarding undeserving kids, you will eventually turn them into lazy adults who expect to be rewarded for no effort. While this is a possibility, in my view it’s a very, very remote possibility and an incredible leap of faith to assume that a couple small trinket medals “earned” as an 8 year old will be such a life-changing effect that will serve as the foundation for adult development based mostly around “free rides.” Adults who think they should be rewarded for simply showing up have likely developed that mindset through countless life experiences and socialization, not because of a sport participation award from 20 years earlier.
The view here is that participation recognition efforts have been around a long time, and the potential return on investment from receiving a token award vs. the potential dangers of being minimally recognized doesn’t appear to be much of a serious worry. I don’t think we’re turning kids today who receive participation awards into an eventual doomed generation of takers without embracing the value of hard work. Conversely, I think building up some self-esteem, helping kids finish what they start, and providing a tangible token that connects a kid to a team are all really great things.