A common sport psychology debate today centers around “participation ribbons” for youth sport athletes – in other words, should kids be rewarded for simply being on the team, or should they have to actually accomplish something in order to receive a reward? Many parents will recall competing in youth sports when only winners received awards, pointing out that today’s young athletes should not be rewarded for passively being on the team. Interestingly, we see this same dilemma in schools across America today — rewarding students and boosting self esteem not because of academic accomplishments, but instead for simply participating and trying.
Like most issues, there are two valid competing arguments at play here. On one hand, by only rewarding true accomplishments kids gain greater motivation, focus, and resiliency, to name a few benefits. Goal setting research has clearly shown that when people set specific, measurable goals they are more apt to try harder (and, consequently, increase the chances for reaching their goals). You could also argue that when kids achieve rewards to are directly tied to accomplishments that self-esteem increases as well, as it is well established in psychology that when we feel good, we usually adjust our self-image upward and continue to want to accomplish more positive things in the future.
The converse to this debate has to do with watering down awards, sometimes to the point where every kid receives the same recognition regardless of whether he has accomplished anything at all. While this approach might help the lower achieving kids feel better, it also runs the risk of reducing the motivation levels of the kids who really tried their best to win, yet found out that their efforts really didn’t matter. Still, rewarding kids who do not accomplish their goals can still create better self-esteem, pride, and the motivation to persevere so that future goals can be achieved.
In my opinion, the best solution to this question is actually a hybrid answer:
1) Set specific, exclusive awards for achievements so that kids who reach these goals are in fact rewarded differently than those who do not. For example, the team that wins the championship should receive a better reward than the runner-up (i.e. a bigger trophy).
2.) Reward participants with a modest award that identifies their efforts and boosts their self-esteem so that they are more encouraged to continue pursuing future goals. Participation ribbons or certificates are two appropriate examples.
Where leagues get into trouble is when they try to treat all kids equally (to a fault). In other words, when every kid receives the same trophy regardless of individual/team success, there is a greater likelihood that none of the kids will truly benefit! In these examples the better kids run the risk of becoming frustrated and complacent (why even try if everyone is getting the same award?), while lesser kids are comforted with average to below-average efforts (rather than motivated to improve upon their efforts in the future).
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