We’ve all witnessed those youth sport ceremonies where every participant receives a trophy. While most consider them to be a fairly harmless way to offer a child some encouragement and provide a sense of accomplishment, there are a considerable number of critics who deride the practice. They argue that recognizing children for mere participation encourages mediocrity and does little to promote excellence. According to the most fervent of those critics, such practices are leading to the creation of a generation of entitled, lazy children.
We all like to consider ourselves “competitors” and “winners”. As adults, we have a propensity to look down our noses at how “easy” younger generations have it. “These kids are so spoiled”, we claim while reminiscing about our hardscrabble lives and sports experiences. That “I’m a winner” narrative parallels the narrative of American “exceptionalism”. And the notion that sports is a vehicle to instill the drive for excellence in participants by emphasizing and rewarding winning above all else is an extension of that narrative.
But the issue of recognizing young athletes for participation is far more nuanced.
As a lifelong participant and intense observer of the role and influence of sport in our culture, it has become clear to me that the relative value and emphasis on the importance of winning does, and should, vary depending upon the level of play. Yes, winning is important but it is a fluid concept, one that ebbs and flows throughout an athlete’s life. The purpose and value of participation in sports is influenced by the push and pull of two seemingly incongruent forces and concepts. This tension is best described as the process (education and personal development) versus the end result (winning).
Youth sports, particularly at the pee-wee level, should be about participation and having fun. Winning at that level is meaningless. The purpose of youth sport is to create a child-centered focus and environment where the kids get exercise, acquire some skills and above all, have fun. The goal should be to make it as enjoyable and accessible as possible so that when the season ends, the child will have had a positive and nurturing enough experience to want to play the sport again in the future. And if receiving a participation trophy or certificate at the end of the season helps contribute to that goal, then provide one. The fact is, receiving such recognition at age 5, 6, 7, or 8 is not going to warp their personalities for a lifetime.
If we truly believe in sports’ value as an educational and character building activity – one that teaches lessons in discipline, teamwork and, yes, the importance of striving for excellence and winning – we must acknowledge that the only way an athlete will be able to eventually learn these skills and character traits will be by continuing to play the sport on an ongoing basis. That being the case, why make pee-wee league sports about winning rather than participation and having fun? The idea at the pee-wee league is to engage them with the sport and begin to nurture in them a love of that sport in a way that lasts a lifetime. And if providing a kid with a participation trophy contributes to that child wanting to continue to play the sport in the future, so be it.
Without question organized sport can be a valuable tool to teach the importance of striving for excellence through hard work and dedication. But clearly, when around 70 % of kids quit sports by age thirteen (National Alliance for Youth Sports), with a major reason being that they are no longer having fun, serious consideration must be given to the relationship between emphasis on winning and making pee-wee sports about participation and fun. If we want to instill in kids the importance of developing a drive and desire to win it should be emphasized at an age appropriate time.
In short, what’s the hurry to replace, at such an early age, the joy and innocence of a child participating for the mere fun of participating with the adult driven concept of winning being the central purpose of sport? As an athlete rises through the system to the junior high and high school levels, there will be plenty of time to increase the emphasis on, and rewarding of, winning. But if we destroy their love of sport by over emphasizing the importance of winning versus participating and having fun to a point where they quit by age 13, there is no chance of ever instilling in them the lessons related to striving to win because they will no longer be on the fields and courts to learn them.
That said however, winning, even at the high school level, should never overshadow the purpose of sport sponsored by an educational institution. Even with an increased emphasis on winning the fundamental purpose of sport sponsored by an educational institution remains, education. It is the “educational value” of participation in sports that is the primary justification for it being sponsored by an educational institution. So yes, increased emphasis on winning is more appropriate at the high school level provided the importance of the end result (winning) does not overshadow the value of the process (education).
As the athlete moves to the college level, the pressure to win becomes greater. Again, while there is nothing inherently wrong with that, at it’s core, the athletic experience, even at the college level, must be first and foremost about education. Even at this next level of competition, the fact that it continues to be justified based on its educational benefits for participants requires that the balance between the emphasis being placed on winning versus using athletics as a tool to educate and instill positive character traits in participants remains balanced and in the proper perspective.
Once the athlete reaches the professional level, all bets are off. As a professional athlete, everyone knows the score. Pro sports are a business. And the business is winning and generating money.
I spent two years as the youth program director at a YMCA where I was responsible for running several youth sports leagues. One of the more amusing experiences relating to those leagues was regularly being asked by youngsters immediately after a game ended, “Who won?”
Generally, I’d reply, “I don’t know.” Invariably, they’d consider that for a moment, shrug their shoulders and respond “Okay”. More often than not, they’d then turn to their parents to ask where they were going for ice cream. At such a young age, kids really don’t care about winning as long as they are having fun playing the game. And that is just fine because pee-wee sports are not about us adults and our values. They are about the kids and their wants and needs.
While it might sound trite to some, the fact is, there is a lot of truth and wisdom in the age-old sports saying, “It is not whether you win or lose, but how (and whether) you play the game.” So for those who think the world is coming to an end because we are awarding pee-wee league athletes participation trophies, it’s time to chill out and appreciate the fact that when it comes to pee-wee sports, the kids just want to play and have fun. While providing some sort of recognition of their participation is certainly not necessary, it clearly won’t result in the end of Western civilization as we know it.