On my desk in front of me, are two trophies given by a local league for participation. They stand 15” tall and are as tall as or perhaps taller than the MVP trophy I received for baseball when I was in high school. One is for 5-7 year olds and the other for 8-10 year olds. I sit amazed that such a trophy was intended for kids so young for merely playing a game for three months. Think any of them might have unrealistic expectations in the future as far as trophies go?
When I was a kid in the 60’s, we got an official Little League pin to stick in our hats. In the late 70’s, when I went into this profession, we gave kids small “figures on a base” that stood maybe 6” high. In the 90’s, leagues began giving larger trophies. Even that was sometimes not good enough. A coach friend of mine came out of his pocket to the tune of $20 per girl to buy participation trophies for his 10U softball team. The trophies were bigger than what the league all-star team got for winning the state championship that year.
So how did all of this come about? Why was it that league administrators, parks and recreation leaders and coaches began to feel the need to spend hundreds of dollars – often raised through numerous fund raising efforts – to buy trophies for kids to “recognize” them for making it through a season without quitting?
The primary argument I have heard over the years is that every kid needs to be recognized for what they have achieved. That’s fine if the child actually did achieve something. But why should simply “making it” through a season be considered achieving something? Looking at it that way tends to strongly imply, that a child playing a sport for a whole season has experienced a personal triumph in endurance. Isn’t participating in sports supposed to teach so much more than that?
A secondary argument is that parents can use the trophies or awards as an enticement to get their kids to play sports. What a life lesson to teach the kids. Stick it out the whole season and you’ll get a big shiny reward that tells you that you stuck it out the whole season. Is that really the message we want to send? May I submit the message should be that the participation, learning, competition and fun are the main reward for the season?
An alternative to participation trophies is to follow the NAYS guidelines of tying in any sort of recognition with how the child contributed to the team during the season. I coached Little League baseball with one of my mentors and he simply printed out certificates on his computer. They recognized each child as Best Teammate, Best Hitter, Best Defensive Player, etc. The presentation each season was made in a variety of locations – get togethers at a local pizza place and one time, on a bus headed to a minor league baseball game. The most important thing was that he took the time to say something special about each player in front of the team.
No big shiny trophies and no big dollars that had to be raised. The kids loved it because their coach had taken the time to make each kid feel special in public with his words. And those words meant more than any trophy. That’s how to recognize the kids.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Alliance for Youth Sports.
David Guthrie is a certified youth sports administor (CYSA) and the youth sports director at MCAS Cherry Point in North Carolina, a recipient of the 2011 Excellence in Youth Sports Award.