Thursday, October 31, 2013

Earning It

About this time every high school soccer season, I'd begin thinking about the awards that we coaches would give our players at our season ending get-together.

I had a tradition that, every other season, I would find a toy, token, or object that fit each player and her abilities, attitudes, or interests. Sometimes they would be obvious, sometimes not. They were always meant to be fun, even if they were occasionally a little ambiguously mean.

The superstitious player who wouldn't abandon her soccer boots at the end of the season, choosing to use duck tape on them instead, received a big roll of tape for the next year. The elegant winger who ran like a colt and cursed like a sailor was given a Princess Leia doll with a tiny bar of soap in her mouth. The player who consistently "forgot" to bring her running shoes to practice got another pair of her very own for the next season.

I sometimes wonder if any of them have kept those knickknacks, which weren't huge and gaudy like the dozens I'm sure they had been handed at the end of every soccer, basketball, and softball league in which they had participated when they were younger.

Ever since our son, E, first brought home a "participation trophy" from soccer when he was four years old, I have been opposed to youth leagues that award them. Trophies should be won, not handed out like Halloween treats. When an athlete, at any age, earns a trophy, she does so knowing that her team excelled -- or at least was better than most -- not just for showing up.

Fortunately, E got it at an early age. As competitive as he was, it didn't take long for him to realize that trophies won were much more valuable than those provided for participation. And I never gave the participation trophies much more thought.

Others, however, have given them great consideration, and have concluded that we may well have poisoned a whole generation into thinking that they are entitled to anything and everything, including a trophy for mere attendance.  In a recent op ed piece in the New York Times, the author cites psychologists and psychological studies that conclude that participation trophies are counterproductive. "Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, found that kids respond positively to praise; they enjoy hearing that they’re talented, smart and so on. But after such praise of their innate abilities, they collapse at the first experience of difficulty. Demoralized by their failure, they say they’d rather cheat than risk failing again."

I think it's a little too easy to blame the awards themselves to any great extent, but perfectly legitimate to blame what they represent: a generation of parents (yes, you baby boomers) that failed to discipline their children when they misbehaved and failed completely at the honest, objective analysis of their children's abilities and the understanding of the value that sports and teamwork can impart, even in the absence of athletic skill.

As you might imagine, there are many stories that I could tell about dealing with unrealistic or misguided parents advocating for their children (often to the child's horror) with regard to athletics. But to do so at this point would be both futile and equally selfish on my part.

While the author of The Times article starts her article with the premise that if the youth league your child is joining hands out participation trophies you should "find another program", that's easier to do in New York City than Charleston, West Virginia. And, in some ways, it's just a further abdication of a parent's responsibilities. Isn't it more of a teaching moment, when their kid brings home that first shiny trophy that is the same as one that every other child received, for the adults to point that out, that, while participation is fine, excellence is better?

They will get it. E certainly did. While he lives in Richmond now, his room at home is still stuffed with various reminders of his athletic achievements: a state track relay championship medal, plaques from state tennis championships, a first-team all-state soccer plaque, even trophies from basketball and soccer tournaments won ten or more years ago. But those participation trophies? He banished them to the attic long ago.

Participation trophies - where they belong.

1 comment:

  1. I suppose it's not kosher to comment on my own post (first anyway), but this story sums up what's wrong with "everybody's a winner" in education just as participation trophies do in sports.