The Great Participation Trophy Debate

The participation trophy debate was briefly mentioned in the EconTalk podcast linked to in the previous post.

Those for participation trophies think it’s good for self-esteem. Those against say it doesn’t prepare kids to deal with failure.

I have a third view to consider: We put too much emphasis on youth sports.

Why do we care so much about the life lessons of youth sports and not so much about life lessons learned from other childhood endeavors, like playing video games?

Has anyone ever argued that the high trial-and-error failure rate in video games hurts a child’s self-esteem? No. Has anyone argued that winning or losing a video game helps kids deal with failure? No.

Yet, we all instinctively know a simple truth about video games: The more a kid plays them, the better he will get.

Play your kid in her favorite video game and she’ll wipe the floor with you. That’s because she has more trial-and-error experience at it than you.

That experience came with no pressure and no stakes. She didn’t have coaches and parents calling out their every mistake from a sideline. If she lost a game, she just started over, tried a different approach and eventually learned what works.

Yet, we don’t translate that instinct to youth sports. Parents and coaches hope for mastery, without recognizing how little time the child has had to master it, especially in unstructured, low pressure, low stakes ways.

Youth sports in the U.S. use to be viewed by parents more like video games are now. In some countries, they still are. Guys I play soccer with, who came to the U.S. from South America and Europe, tell me they spent a great deal of time playing soccer in their home countries and their parents nagged them to do something more productive, just like how U.S. parents nag their kids to put down the video games.

When I was a kid, the way we learned sports was different than today. It was a lot more like how kids these days learn to play video games — lots of low pressure, low stakes play. Why? Because parents didn’t care as much about sports then.

We had much more unstructured play where we played with family and friends. We played more often with older and younger kids, the older ones taught us the tricks of the trade, then we passed those on to younger kids.

We got creative and made up our own games and rules, a lot of times to help compensate for imbalances of playing with different ages and abilities.

The ratio of time spent in low pressure, low stakes unstructured play to the high pressure, organized play was much higher than today.

I played a lot of driveway basketball, mainly because I got bored watching I Love Lucy reruns. I won no basketball scholarships, nor was I scouted by the NBA and I’m usually the last picked at just about any pickup game.

But, if I went to a country where they don’t grow up playing driveway basketball, the locals may be as amazed with my unconscious fade-away jumpers as I am with the soccer skills my friends from Europe and South America display.

Even when we played organized teams as kids, it wasn’t a major event. Every parent didn’t go to every game. Often, parents took turns carting the kids to the game. We often didn’t have large crowds to witness our losses and we didn’t get ear fulls on the ride home for the mistakes we made in the game. Nor do I remember getting snacks.

And, that was okay. Playing was more for us kids and less about pleasing parents and grandparents. They just wanted us to stay in school and out of trouble. We weren’t worried about college scholarships, going pro or being sports prodigies.

I think that’s the major thing that has changed. Now, sports is more about the parents. I hear a lot of parents humble-brag about their kids playing “competitive” or “travel” sports, as if that means something. It does mean something. It means you are paying a lot more than the previous generation to have your child be mediocre at sports.

If you have a strong stance on the participation trophy debate, it may be a sign that you care about youth sports more than is healthy. Think about why you care more about that than you do your child’s video game or Lego building achievements.

Update: Mike M requested that I add the link to a previous discussion about what college athletes said their parents said to them. Here it is: Signals v causes in youth sports.

Post Note: Zemanta suggested the related article below about i9 Sports. I love this quote from the article:

Youth sports have become adult sports played by kids. Adults have sucked the fun out of youth sports, and our goal is to put fun back to the center.


Enhanced by Zemanta

11 thoughts on “The Great Participation Trophy Debate

  1. Hi Seth! A few quick thoughts –

    We often conceptualize that sports (or insert your own favorite activity) are good for kids because they teach that hard work will lead to success. We often assume that this will occur in a linear manner and serve as an immediate (or near term) feedback to the child. However, many things in life don’t work that way. Success is often only achieved in a stepwise manner and sometimes it’s just one big step after years of failure (or non-success).

    The important thing to reward – and this was is what Carol Dweck’s research has shown – is not success, but the hard work. That’s where you are correct in regards to your argument above. I don’t think that we should dismiss youth sports (or other activities). The problem is not the activity, but the “I want it all and I want it now” parents who instead of praising their kids efforts and having the patience to wait YEARS for the rewards (which is not success, but the “grit” and ability to persevere despite not having immediate success), are impatient and want little Johnnie to be the star right now.

    I think that all kids should participate in activities that are out of his comfort zone where failure and hardship are an integral part and where success isn’t guaranteed even if one works hard.


    • Hi Mike — I didn’t mean to suggest that we dismiss youth sports. Just wanted to point out that the ‘life lesson’ rationale is often a disingenuous cover for parents’ true motivation for pushing their children into their favored activities, otherwise they would recognize the ‘life lesson’ aspects of less favored activities as well.

      Also, wanted to point out that the current incarnation of youth sports seems counterproductive to me. I don’t think kids learn life lessons or about a sport when they’re getting yelled at by adults for 8 games — other than “this is no fun.” I think there’s a lot more life lesson and sports education to be had in less organized play. I think that’s a good life lesson for parents.

      In Dweck’s research (I’m not all that familiar with it), did she uncover a link between rewarding hard work and getting hard work?

      I know incentives matter, but I also think that grit and hard-work is what it looks like when you are truly interested in what you’re doing. When you do, you do more of it, not matter what setbacks you face. In fact, the setbacks aren’t even setbacks.

      So, it’s a signal vs. marker question, again. Are those successful people successful because they are hard-working, or is hard-working just a result of someone who has found whatever it is they truly enjoy?

      • Hi Seth – No problem. I didn’t think you were dismissing youth sports. I understood that you felt sports were only one of several activities kids could do and that by “overemphasizing” you meant overemphasizing winning. I agree.

        I have less of a problem with a coach being hard on a kid that a parent. I think most kids – at a certain age – accept this. Also, at some age, they need to start learning how to deal with jerks – not to say that every coach who yells or pushes is a jerk.

        In regards to Dweck’s work, the best I can recall is that she found when kids in school were rewarded for their effort rather than their results, they tended to (a) be willing to take more challenging classes, and (b) not give up as easily when presented with difficult tasks. Praise the kid for things he can control, like effort, not the things he cannot control, like innate abilities (intelligence, coordination, etc.)

        I think it has some interesting ramifications when we look at what kids were told by the self-esteem gurus. As I recall, what happened in practice with the self esteem movement was that kids were praised for a good result no matter what the result – if it was a sport, they were given a trophy. In a kid’s mind, the trophy is a reward for a result, not an effort. So, in essence, they were being told by the trophy and by words, “Good job”, which they interpreted as “good result.” This has had bad consequences.

        • Mike — Thanks for the links. Good stuff. I think it fits well with what I wrote.

          It says kids praised for having a natural ability were less willing to take risks to try challenging things that may make them look as if they don’t have that ability. Those praised for effort weren’t as likely to shy away from those risks.

          In the NY Mag feature, there was also a study in which they taught one group of kids that intelligence was not innate and could be improved on and that group improved more after the session.

          I think the message received from kids who get yelled at by parents and coaches when they’re on the field playing a game where they haven’t had much experience is that you either have innate ability or you don’t. I think parents also think that. “My kid is either good or he isn’t,” and they just never consider that perhaps they haven’t quite had the same experience as the others on the field, yet.

          More to come..this is interesting.

          • Seth – can you link this thread to the thread of several months ago where we discussed the issue of elite athletes and their parents’ attitudes toward their participation or success in sports?

  2. Just wanted to add one other thing – I think that at some age or level of maturity, results do need to be addressed, When little Johnny grows up to be John and has a job, his employer will be concerned more with his results than his effort. For parents, the key is how to make this transition, i.e. “Good try, but it didn’t turn out too well. Let’s look at what you did and see if there’s something you can try that’s different.” Of course, at a certain age, a coach – the precursor of a boss – takes a more direct approach and some combination of supportive parent and results oriented coach may work. I think that it depends on parents and coaches looking at the sport, etc. as being for the development of the kid and not for the parent or coach’s personal satisfaction – which is what I think your original point was. I don’t have an answer for fixing all the parents and coaches who are living vicariously through the kids.

    • Results matter, even at a young age. It’s important feedback. But, they should be put in the proper perspective. This is where I see big opportunity for improvement.

      Responding to results are how kids improve at video games.

  3. For very young kids trying out new things, where’s the harm? As they get older, things become more competitive and you have to earn it. Most kids don’t seem to have much trouble understanding that.

  4. Pingback: Meritocracy or Relative Age Effect? | Our Dinner Table

  5. Pingback: Attn: Soccer clubs/leagues — Simple alternative to participation trophy | Our Dinner Table


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