Do We Reward Effort or Results? Debating participation trophies

     I started playing soccer at age four, began playing competitively at age eight and continued to play competitively until I graduated from high school. I make this distinction between play and competitive play not because my four-year old-self did not understand the concept of winning or losing, but rather because there is a certain amount of skill needed before one can translate a desire to win into the ability to help make those wins possible, and one shouldn’t expect a four-year-old to have developed that skill. All of us who have played soccer want to score that epic game-winning goal, but such a goal requires hours of practice in thinking strategically on the field and hours more in practicing the techniques that connect mind and body, thought and action.

     I don’t mind giving the four-year-old a participation trophy. I would be much more cautious about giving it to the eight-year-old. For the former, the virtue for which they are rewarded is the willingness to try, to apply their best effort at what is most likely a new sort of game for them. It is assumed that they did not begin skillfully in their play, and it is likewise assumed that at the season’s end, we will not see much—if any—increase in skill. To predicate a tactile reward like a trophy on skillfulness would be ludicrous. It would be better not to give a trophy at all than to give one for skillfulness at this venture. Yet we want to give those four-year-olds a trophy, and rightfully so, because we recognize that this participation in sport is something worth doing, and we want to encourage the impressionable and unskillful young child to persist in practice that they can grow in skill.

     The eight-year-old is entirely capable of growing in skill. This is not to say that every eight-year-old is capable of the kind of skill that lets him make game-winning goals. Perhaps this eight-year-old’s growth in skill is so seemingly miniscule that none save his coach and the most observant of his teammates can see the increase. In such a scenario, a trophy for mere participation would be counterproductive. The end goal is not simply to “show up,” but rather to improve that you might better serve your team out on the field. If we reward the eight-year-old merely for being present rather than for doing well, we de-incentivize future growth.

     My younger brother started playing soccer years and years after I had been playing. Yet, in high school, I found myself sitting on the bench for several games as he stood on the field as a starter. At first I was angry, hurt, humiliated. I privately bemoaned how unfair the situation seemed. But then I got over it, because all those years of playing had taught me something: it was never about me. It was always about the team. Such a realization stems from what we would call maturity.

     When I was a little kid, trophies helped encourage me to discipline myself and learn the game that I loved. As a high schooler, I didn’t need an unearned trophy. If my brother walked away with a trophy and I didn’t, well, that was fine, because as a high schooler, I didn’t need a trophy to realize that participation on the team was meaningful and satisfying. I guess I’m just not sure my high-school self would have been able to find grace in what was initially a hard situation if my eight and 10 and 12-year-old selves would have been rewarded with a trophy just for tying my cleats and showing up on the field.

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