By Linda L. Esterson
Since he was five years old, “Johnny” played organized football. He attended practices, played in the games, and at the end of each season he received a trophy for his participation.
Once he turned 14, as he entered high school after nine years on the recreation gridiron, he began workouts to play for the local high-school team. He endured the grueling two-a-day practices and put in his share of training.
But when the roster was finalized, he didn’t make the cut. He was shocked. It never occurred to him that he wouldn’t make the team. After all, he always made every team and always received a trophy.
Being cut from a team and dealing with losing are two sports lessons that provide teachable moments for children. But in today’s world of giving each player a trophy or game ball, not declaring a winner and pumping every child up, is society doing our youth a disservice?
“Giving a trophy to everybody takes away from the motivation to digging deeper,” says Andrew Burns, Ph.D., psychologist at Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital and in private practice in Owings Mills. “The identification of competition is not necessarily a bad thing.”
Barry Flaks, who has coached in Jewish Community Center (JCC) and Reisterstown Recreation Council leagues for baseball, lacrosse, basketball and soccer, reflects on last fall when his 8-year-old son –– who has a room full of participation trophies –– was a member of the team that lost the championship soccer game at Sacred Heart Athletic Association. Each member of the winning team received a very large trophy; his son’s team members got smaller trophies as the runners-up. The kids on the losing team cried, as did Mr. Flaks when he saw their pain, but he applauds the lesson.
“Losing does a lot for self-esteem,” says Mr. Flaks, who as a child never earned a trophy just for participating. “You can’t always win.”
Avi Rubin, a JCC soccer and basketball coach, remembers trophies only for winners during his youth. Mr. Rubin recalls winning the soccer championship as a teenager and receiving his only trophy.
“That was one of the happiest days of my life,” he says. “It meant a whole lot to me.”
Mr. Rubin says presenting trophies to all players takes away from the meaning of earning a trophy. His children expect to receive trophies and are more excited to attend games on those scheduled days. “I actually wish they didn’t get a trophy,” he says, suggesting water bottles or certificates instead. “A trophy is for victory. It doesn’t send a strong message. It devalues what the trophy will mean to them later.”
However, sports leagues view trophy awards as a way to reward participation and encourage continued involvement.
“We want to reward the participation, especially with childhood inactivity due to video games and other media and concerns about childhood obesity,” says Dr. Burns.
Younger children especially need the reinforcement associated with participation. Dr. Burns says participation trophies are appropriate for children six and under. However, when they are older, competition comes more into play. Children then are more aware of winning and losing, and the reward of a trophy should be representative of winning and team effort, not just showing up and standing on the field or sitting on the bench.
As children age, more effort is expended through sports participation, with the hope that while skills are refined they will feel good about their participation, without the need for a trophy.
“Those individuals can look back and reflect on what everyone didn’t get,” says Dr. Burns. “It gives them something to strive for, which maintains motivation.”
Similarly, the concepts of fairness and equal playing time are tenets of local sports programs that strive to teach and provide sports experiences for children. Many leagues require coaches to split time equally among all players on a team.
Andy Paladino, commissioner of the Reisterstown baseball program, says the official rule applies even to the older leagues. In minors (9-10), majors (11-12) and ponies (13-14), players play at least three innings in the field, cannot sit out two consecutive innings, and everyone bats.
“The kid who thinks he’s the next Cal Ripken –– good for him –– but we want to provide a positive experience for all kids,” Mr. Paladino says. “We want to teach baseball so they want to come back and play, and when they get older, come back and coach.”
Mr. Paladino reflects on stories of children in other leagues who are told not to attend playoff games and others who are stuck in right field and bat last in the order. “We’re on top of the coaches and make sure everybody is getting a fair chance at all positions and not batting last and switching things around,” he says. Even the travel programs are not designed to “win at all costs.”
Mr. Flaks uses a dry-erase board to keep track of playing time and positions. He gives everyone a chance at all positions, except maybe goalie. He may opt to not put a child who is overweight at midfield in soccer, which requires constant running. If an overweight child wants to try midfield and can last only a few minutes, he’s willing.
“A child who is motivated to play should be encouraged and supported in their play,” says Dr. Burns. “Rotating a child in gives him the feeling of contributing to the team and feeling worthwhile. ... That’s what ‘rec’ leagues are for.”
When teams become more competitive and scores are kept, children still rotate in and out. When mistakes happen, like dropping a fly ball or missing a shot, they learn a valuable lesson about failure. They realize that life does go on and they get another chance.
But as the children age, introducing competition only prepares them for success in life. “Sport is all about fairness and learning the game up to a certain age,” Mr. Flaks says. “After a certain point, counting score matters. Not everybody can win; the world’s not created equal.”
Giving trophies strictly for participation, he says, does a disservice to the children. “There’s nothing to work toward, no goal. People are so soft that they say winning and losing affects kids. No, it doesn’t. I didn’t commit suicide if I lost. I knew I had to work harder.”
Regardless of the opinion, the point is to achieve well-rounded children, says Dr. Burns. “Children with all of their eggs in the athletic basket will be more impacted by not getting a trophy,” he says. “The goal is to promote success in that sport but to feel good as an entire person, not just an athlete. There can be success in other areas.”