NFL running back DeAngelo Williams recently made news because he forced his daughter to give back a ribbon she got for participating in a school field day. Williams said that his daughter hadn’t done anything to earn the ribbon, and he didn’t want her to think that merely showing up is worthy of a reward. Last year, another former NFL player James Harrison similarly made his sons give back their participation trophies.
Many people have complained about participation awards in recent years, claiming that such awards have created an entitlement attitude among American youth. They believe that because kids are being rewarded for doing nothing but showing up, they’ll expect to always have things handed to them, and will never work to accomplish anything.
I disagree with those critics. I think they’ve forgotten a few things about children and youth sports:
Children are not stupid
I don’t think most kids are going to get those participation awards and think that they “earned” something. They can see that the kids who won got different – usually bigger – awards, and are smart enough to know the difference.
More importantly, I don’t think the awards really affect them very much. The kids who really want to win aren’t going to be satisfied with a mere participation award. The kids who don’t care as much probably aren’t going to become more competitive simply because they didn’t receive a ribbon.
Besides, the extra motivation might not even matter because…
Hard work only goes so far
“You can be anything you want to be! You just have to work hard!” These words of advice have been presented to countless children over the years, and they are simply not true. For instance, no matter how hard I worked, I was never going to make it to the NFL. (I wasn’t even invited to the Combine!)
Williams seems to think it was his amazing work ethic that got him to the NFL. Had he been coddled with participation awards as a child, he might not have had the motivation to make it. Admittedly, Williams had a harder road to the NFL than most, but I’d guess that he’s still more athletically gifted than 99.99% of the country’s population.
Most kids can work as hard as they want, but they’re still not going to play professionally. Williams and Harrison seem to think that by taking away their kids’ participation awards, it inspired them to work harder and win actual trophies later on. Did they win because they had extra motivation? Or was it because as the children of elite athletes, they’re probably more naturally gifted than their classmates?
Not every kid is going to win, even if he’s the hardest worker around. And they’re never going to work hard at a sport if they don’t enjoy it. That’s why we need to remember that…
Sports are supposed to be fun
Here’s a good message to send to children: Winning is the only thing that matters. Did you play hard, try your best, and have a good time? Nobody cares! You’re a loser, so you get nothing!
While I’m sure some parents sign their kids up for youth sports with dreams of scholarships or lucrative professional careers, most kids are playing sports because they’re something fun for them to do. At the youth level, children should just be allowed to enjoy playing the games, and for some kids, participation awards add to the sense of fun.
Perhaps the lack of reward for mere participation will inspire some children to work harder. On the other hand, it may also teach them that winning is more important than teamwork and sportsmanship. For the less talented kids, it might make them want to just quit.
Williams and Harrison had successful professional careers, so it makes sense that they may have forgotten that sports aren’t really supposed to be work. They also may not realize that if kids don’t enjoy playing sports, then they’ll probably never succeed, no matter how athletically gifted they may be. Let the kids just enjoy playing first. They can worry about winning later.
Kids will learn soon enough that in the real world, mere participation isn’t enough to receive an award. They’ll figure out that they won’t get handed a trophy simply for showing up to something. But at the youth sports level, or at a school field day? If a ribbon or small trophy adds to the fun for some kids, then I don’t see any harm in them.