The Controversial Participation Trophy: A Sport Psychology Perspective

Social Media was in a frenzy recently over participation trophies. This topic has been a bit controversial, but exploded after Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, James Harrison, took to Facebook with a picture of his sons’ participation trophies and a caption that indicated he was returning the trophies and his sons would have to work hard for their earnings (not just show up). Harrison writes on Facebook:

“…I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy.”

There are many opinions to this topic and plenty of questions such as, does the trophy movement enhance self-esteem? Is it a parent problem? Are we raising lazy and entitled children? What about lack of competitiveness? The ‘let’s give everyone a trophy’ movement was initially created to prevent low self-esteem in children and to help build their self-confidence. However, it is placing the focus on external rewards of play. The focus should be on intrinsic rewards (are kids playing for fun and enjoyment), not the prize at the end. Numerous studies show that people are more committed to activities when they are done out of passion, rather than external rewards such as trophies. Kids also know if they had a good performance or a bad performance. Giving them a trophy at the end may put a smile on their face, or it may not. They do compare themselves to other kids regardless, whether they are all holding trophies or not. The focus should not be on the token at the end, but the words that parents and coaches use to encourage and strengthen the children and their self-confidence. Doing your best no matter what should always be reinforced. The notion that hard work and determination create opportunities for success is also very important to instill in a child. Lets steer the focus away from giving out trophies for participation and start focusing on the fundamentals of success.

A few topics that arise from the trophy debate:


Sports embody competitiveness, but competitiveness is essentially an aspect that goes deeper in life then just athletics. Applying for jobs, grades, musical performances, spelling b’s….there is a very long list that shows competition is a part of everyone’s daily lives. We feel the greatness or the sting of competiveness in every category. We either get the job, or we don’t. We place first in the musical performance or we don’t. We get honor roll or….we don’t. Some people give up and throw in the towel or they keep moving forward and work harder the next time. What we do after the competition is done is what makes us who we are. We can be fighters or we can wallow in the dissatisfaction. These are qualities that are not distinguished by a trophy or prize, this is something we learn from our environments and our support networks. A trophy feels

good after doing your absolute best because you were acknowledged for your hard work and dedication. A trophy for participation may not feel the same and essentially be meaningless. So in the competition of life, are you telling your child to try harder, stay persistent, and to apply themselves?

Failure vs Success

Winners vs. losers, also a hot topic that fits right in to the trophy debate. At an early age sport should certainly not be all about winning and losing. Sometimes we ultimately do our very best and it comes up short. Essentially there will always be winners and losers, but what is important are the words the coaches and parents are saying to their children after the fact. Was it a failure? Are you encouraging them to try harder next time? Are you taking it as a learning experience? Failures are what propel us to achieve greatness. The feeling of redeeming yourself and making a comeback is described by many athletes as the ultimate success and they do not even care about the trophy or medal presented at the end. Some of the most rewarding experiences in life are failures. If you never fail in any aspect of life then you probably are not taking any risks, but you are also not growing. That is what makes winning so appealing, not a trophy. Winning can certainly be reinforcement to also try your best. If there is not a concept of winning, then would we really even try that hard? This is why participation trophies also do not work the way they were meant to. Why put your all into something if you know everyone ends up the same? Again, the underlying fundamentals of success come in to play here. It is about the work and effort put into the individual performance that matters most and the encouragement and feedback given from mentors and teachers.

Lazy and entitled children

Children do not become lazy and entitled by receiving trophies for participation. If we praise kids for merely showing up and not exerting effort, then yes they will probably become entitled and they are most likely already lazy. If we praise kids for doing their best and instilling in them the courage and determination to do better next time, a trophy may be deserved. Effort is the key here, not the prize. Discuss what it means to give effort, to not give up, and to be motivated to achieve something. Motivation, support, and guidance will not create laziness. Hard work and sacrifice will not create entitlement. Speaking to your kids about losses and failures will create drive to help them learn from their experiences and grow as adults. Do not depend on trophies to teach your kids that.

So, regardless of the trophy, take the time to talk to your kids about the values you want them to believe in and encourage them to try their best. Talk to them after competitions about their performance, their strengths, weaknesses, and the fun they had. Stop focusing on the trophies and refocus on the fundamentals! The world’s greatest athletes got to where they are because they believed in themselves, they had pride, they were determined and they were motivated by bettering themselves.