Trophies Are for Winning

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Jan 1, 2018

Should kids be given trophies for playing sports, even when they don't win? Are participation trophies a good or bad thing for young athletes? Former Olympian and LA Galaxy soccer star Cobi Jones shares his thoughts.

Telling kids that losing is no big deal and showing up deserves a trophy leads to complacency and false confidence. 

  • Wanting to make children happy is natural, but it can go too far and can end up encouraging irresponsibility and a lack of motivation.View Source
  • Instead of telling children that everyone's a “winner at heart”, we should praise their drive and the work they put in.View Source
  • Participation trophies are often more for parents than anyone else, to make them feel that their children are special, or to shield them from pain.View Source
  • WATCH: Author Megan McCardle on why failing is the key to success.View Source

Letting children lose isn’t about punishing them—it’s about showing them that losing is part of life and encouraging them to work harder.

  • Letting children lose isn’t about punishing them; it’s about showing them that losing is a natural part of life and teaching strategies to deal with that reality.View Source
  • Participation trophies are a part of the self-esteem movement. But high self-esteem in and of itself is not a good thing.View Source
  • A 2014 poll found that older Americans are not in favor of giving trophies to everyone, while 18-24-year-olds prefer giving out participation trophies.View Source
  • Related reading: “The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success” – Megan McCardleView Source

The belief that just showing up is an accomplishment is self-destructive. The pain of losing is part of what drives one to improve. 

  • Experiencing small losses early in life and learning to deal with them is better than experiencing larger losses later on without the tools to cope.View Source
  • Success is built on process, and if we don’t lose, we will never know we need to refine our process.View Source
  • If showing up is all that needs to be done for success, then there is no reward for motivation or responsibility.View Source
  • Showing up is only the beginning, process and hard work are the next step.View Source
  • Related reading: “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing” – Po Bronson, Ashley MerrymanView Source

Praising a child’s every action is not helpful or even harmless. It can lead to inflated self-esteem and even narcissism. 

  • Praising a child’s every action is not helpful or even harmless. It can lead to an inflated self-esteem and even narcissism.View Source
  • Telling talented kids how good they are can be just as destructive as telling untalented kids the same thing. Either way, the child is left unprepared for inevitable losses. Rather than praising children for simply participating, we should focus on process and progress.View Source
  • WATCH: “Why Self-Esteem is Self-Defeating” – Matt WalshView Source

The road to victory—in sports, business, life—is paved with painful losses. If we don’t let our kids lose, they will not learn to succeed.

  • According to Dr. C. Robert Cloninger, trophies for everyone dulls competition and make children less equipped to deal with difficult circumstances.View Source
  • Sports should help children develop skills to deal with the difficulties of life, not shield them from them.View Source
  • According to a 2014 poll, people who make over 45k a year overwhelmingly say kids should not get participation trophies.View Source
  • A child crying because of losing a game is far less painful than a young adult experiencing a breakdown after learning too late that life wasn’t fair.View Source
  • WATCH: Author Ashley Merryman on why every kid should not get a trophy.View Source

In the real world, you’re rewarded for achievement, not effort. We do our kids a disservice by rewarding them for simply showing up.

  • Trophies for everyone dulls a competitive spirit. If everyone’s a winner, then why try?View Source
  • Once a child truly masters a skill, they will not need participation trophies to tell them how much they’ve accomplished.View Source
  • The people who believe the most in not giving out participation trophies are also the wealthiest and most successful members of society.View Source
  • You can put all of your efforts into something and still fail. Achievement is the only thing that is rewarded in the real world, shielding children from this reality does nothing but hurt them.View Source

Promotions don’t go to employees who did their best. They go to the employees who did the best.

  • You can put all of your efforts into something and still fail. Achievement is the only thing that is rewarded in the real world, shielding children from this reality does nothing but hurt them.View Source
  • The people who believe the most in not giving out participation trophies are also the wealthiest and most successful members of society.View Source
  • Related reading: “The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success” – Megan McCardleView Source

Trying your best is not enough. Try to beat your best. 

  • Losing gives us a signal that we need to work harder. Without that signal, we can never improve.View Source
  • If you get a trophy for any outcome — for just participating — there is no reason to work toward beating your best.View Source
  • Sports should encourage children to build skills toward achieving a goal. Staying average misses the point.View Source
  • Related reading: “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing” – Po Bronson, Ashley MerrymanView Source

Participation trophies.

I’m not a fan.

They’re bad for kids. Bad for parents. Bad for society.

Other than that, they’re okay.

Don’t get me wrong. I love any kind of organized competition for kids. I lived and breathed baseball, basketball, football and soccer growing up. If there was a sport to be played, I played it. And never once did anybody ever tell me that winning was not important or that showing up was all that mattered.

But today, kids get a different message. Losing? No big deal. Showing up? That deserves a trophy. Wow. What an awful thing to tell a kid. Glad my parents or coaches never said it to me. If they had, I’m sure I never would’ve become a pro soccer player.

Let me tell you why.

In high school, I was a good soccer player. I thought I could play soccer in college. Looking back, though, I just wasn’t good enough in those college coaches eyes.

I tried out for the UCLA team as a walk-on. I made it! I was vindicated. I had arrived...on the bench. The coach hardly ever looked at me. I’m not even sure he knew my name. I know he didn't care about my feelings. I wanted to be a starter, I wanted to be a winner. Shouldn't I have been satisfied just for making the team? Of course not. That’s absurd.

But isn’t that what kids are told today? You’re a winner. Even if you’re not. Even if you come in last. And we’ll give you a trophy…just for showing up, just for participating.

This belief – that showing up is an accomplishment – is self-destructive. Because the pain of losing is part of what drives one to improve.

The frustration of going to game after game and sitting on the bench drove me nuts. I had to practice more. I had to work harder. Or, I had to give up. And I didn’t want to give up.

This taught me an important lesson: If you don’t put in the work, you won’t get ahead. And not getting ahead? Well, that feels awful. So, put in the work. Or go home.

So, I put in the work. I pushed myself, not to do my best – because who can possibly know what “their best” is? – but to be better. And better.

And one day, my chance came. Coach put me in the game. Not because I wanted so badly to play, but because he needed me. I played well. Well enough to start the next game where I scored a goal, and had an assist. After that I started every game.

The road to victory – in sports, in business, in life – is paved with losses, painful losses. Losses that can hurt so much it’s hard to breathe. Any professional athlete or successful entrepreneur will tell you that’s true.

But participation trophies, everybody-is-the-valedictorian, and let’s-all-pat-each-other-on-the-back awards communicate a different message. They tell you that losing doesn't matter – it matters. They tell you that competition is, at best, not important, and at worst, dangerous. I wonder how my soccer career would have turned out if I’d grown up with these ideas in my head.

I was cut twice during the tryout period for the 1992 Olympics. My pro soccer team, the LA Galaxy, lost three times in the championship before we finally won in 2002.

Guess what? I survived all these disappointments and a whole lot more. They only made victory that much sweeter.

In the real world, you’re rewarded for achievement, not effort. Promotions don’t go to the employees who did their best. They go to the employees who did the best.

But what if the kids can’t handle losing? What if it’s too painful? That’s the whole point. It’s your job as the adult, as the parent, to help them understand that losing – that not getting what they want – is a part of life. Nobody likes to fail, but it’s inevitable and it’s the only path, ultimately, to success.

Yes, showing up and participating is important. Trying your best is important. But neither deserves a trophy. If you want one of those, go win something.

I’m Cobi Jones for Prager University.

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