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Five For The Record: Participation trophies.

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I have a low tolerance for cliches, especially when they’re trotted out in an attempt to teach me something about the world I live in.

Tonight, after reading a motivational book for a work assignment, I’ve discovered another phrase I think belongs in the burn-pile of threadbare sentiments:

“Kids today get trophies just for participating in sports, and this makes them weaker of mind, flabby of spirit, and less determined to succeed.”

(Or some bushwah like that; phrase the consequences however you want.)

I think this idea might have a kernel of truth in certain specific situations, but it’s now reached the point where it’s dragged out as a ready-made in lieu of actual thought.

So, in a variant on my usual Five For The Record format — a more typical example can be found here — I take, fed up, to the keyboard to lay out five reasons why participation trophies are not leading our country down the path to hell and people need to find something else to whine about.

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1: A question of value. Playing sports through the ’80s and into the early ’90s, I might have been in the first generation of kids to receive the much-maligned “participation trophies.” I remember them well.

There was the little trophy I got in youth soccer in second or third grade, for instance. It was made of plastic, it leaned slightly to one side, and it would not have been out of place in a gumball machine.

And then there were the “finisher” ribbons I occasionally received for high-school cross-country races. They were scraps of cloth that probably came 100 to a five-dollar bag.

My point: These rewards were cheap handouts. They looked it. I recognized it. So do kids today. Do you really think kids allow 10 cents of Chinese plastic to warp their value systems for life and turn them into mediocre adults?

Today’s participation trophies are a little fancier, but they’re still cheap. Or at least, the ones my kids have are.

And I can tell you from the layers of dust on ’em that my kids aren’t making deep, life-shaping personal connections with theirs, any more than I did with mine. (Keeping something on a shelf and taking it to heart are two different things.)

2: Philosophy. “No, no,” I hear people saying irritably. “It’s not the actual item the kids receive that corrupts them. It’s the philosophical idea that they get something for nothing, or praise for being mediocre.”

First of all, they don’t get something for nothing. They put in time and effort — quite a bit of both in some cases.

And second, as I just said, the “something” they get is generally not a whole hell of a lot. (There is probably some crazy hyper-affluent suburb where every Little Leaguer gets a World Series ring, but this is the exception and not the rule.)

As for the idea of kids getting rewarded for being mediocre, this is also an exception, rather than a rule.

Remember: Kids spend nine months a year in school, a setting where they are constantly graded, week after week. Most of them have a strong and well-developed sense of what it’s like to be evaluated, what it’s like to be found wanting, what rewards await success, and what punishments follow failure.

To a kid, getting a prize for being an also-ran on the sports field is not a defining example of how life works. Rather, it’s a welcome vacation from the constant grind of performance evaluation. And who couldn’t use the occasional break from that?

3: Incentives. I accept it as fact, not cliche, that American kids as a whole are overfed and underexercised, and that their health suffers — and will continue to suffer — as a result.

With that in mind, something that pats kids on the back and says, “Hey, coming out and running three times a week was a great thing to do!,” is a worthwhile prize. It’s certainly a more positive end-of-year reward than a pizza and ice cream party.

(Yes, I grant the fact that not every kid who comes out for a team works hard and gets good exercise. Just getting off the couch puts them ahead of millions of other kids.)

Same deal with commitment. Kids need to know that they can’t just ditch what they start if it gets tough. Something that says, “Thanks for showing up every week for three months, being present for your teammates, and sticking it out!” doesn’t send the worst message in the world.

Sure, you don’t really get a prize for sticking it out at work year after year once you’ve grown up. But our treatment of children does not have to be 100 percent geared toward preparing them to be adult wage slaves.

4: Deflated self-worth. Another occasional argument of the anti-trophy folks is that kids will hyperinflate their perception of their own skills because they got a trophy. In other words, they’ll think they’re good when they’re not.

Again, I’m working off a limited sample size here … but based on my experience and that of my kids, I’m convinced that children have a pretty damn acute sense of how good or bad they are, and how good or bad their friends are.

Rare is the kid who genuinely thinks he’s Johan Cruyff because he got a trophy at the end of the season. If there are swelled heads in youth sports, it’s probably the result of ongoing coddling by a parent-coach, not a participation trophy.

5: The parents, not the trophies. Which brings me to the last argument for participation trophies: It’s the coaches and parents that shape a kid’s outlook and chances for future success, not the trophy at the end of the year.

It’s possible for a kid to lose all his games, get a trophy, and still turn out OK — if his parents and coach send the right messages and frame the season, and the kid’s effort, in the right way.

It’s also possible for a kid to lose all his games, get no trophy, and get his psyche stepped on by his coaches and parents in a way that screws him up worse than any little metal ballplayer bolted to a fake granite base could ever do.

 

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