In Defence of Participation Awards

Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebacker James Harrison recently made headlines after taking away his sons’ participation trophies and returning them to whatever team or league they came from.  His actions have re-ignited the age-old debate about participation trophies, whether they should be handed out in youth leagues and what value or damage these trophies do to kids.  Harrison’s quote:

“I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies!” Harrison wrote. “While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy.”

“I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better.”


First off, let me be clear: What James Harrison does with his family doesn’t affect me in any way, nor does it have any impact on my day.  It’s his right as a father to do what he believes is best for his kids, and good on him for taking a firm stance and holding himself true to his family values.  Despite this stance, I could not disagree with his opinion more, and it was surprising to me to see how many people were agreeing with his views.

I came across a couple different “Facebook rants” from people I know that believe Harrison is doing the Lord’s work by banning participation trophies from his home, and along with Jon Bois’ fantastic take on the whole debate, it inspired me to throw my own opinion out there:  There’s value in participation trophies, and they definitely aren’t what’s making kids soft.

(Let me preface my comments by saying that when kids approach an age ending in -teen, the participation trophy should be no more.  That’s my feeling, at least.) 


The main argument I always see is that kids don’t do anything to earn these awards.  They’re given out regardless of effort, drive, determination, success and any other buzzword that gets used when the topics of “sports” and “winning” come together.

“Kids won’t learn that they need to earn things in this world.”

“Kids need to be toughened up and understand that there’s winners and losers.”

“My child needs to experience failure.”

The comments go on and on.

But here’s the thing: little Timmy and little Sarah don’t need to learn those “skills” right now.  The world will teach them soon enough.  Kids need to enjoy being kids, being introduced to the concepts of teamwork and unity, and most of all they need to have fun.  Sports are a wonderful thing, and for many of us, they remain a central part of our lives.  If there’s a trophy at the end to reward them for participating in a sport, then so be it.  They earned it.

Kids aren’t stupid.  They understand when a team wins and when a team loses.  Life mimics sports in that sense, in that there are successful people and people who struggle.  When little Timmy’s team gets pounded 10-1 in the Under 8 Little League baseball semi-final, he knows he lost.  His team understands the concept of losing a game to their opponent.  But Timmy is also seven-years-old and cares about having fun, making friends and creating memories. We should celebrate that journey.  With childhood obesity rates continuing to rise in today’s technological world, maybe ‘participation’ is an accomplishment that should be recognized.  After all, it’s a lot easier to sit alone indoors and stare at a TV screen or play your Xbox.

Being active goes beyond the basic social and physical health benefits. Participating in group activities can be a scary thing for most kids. It’s not easy for everyone to make friends, to put themselves in front of others and be able to show confidence and be comfortable.  Beyond that, staying committed to something and living with your decisions is another one of life’s lessons, and not all kids who sign up for an activity for the first time will stick with it for a full season.  Overcoming these fears and successfully learning these lessons, especially at a young age, are huge accomplishments, and ones that I think deserve to be celebrated.


I bet most of you have received a participation award at some point in your lives.  Many of you probably still have them.  Are you keeping them because you’re proud of the fact that you participating in something?  Maybe, but probably not. You’re an adult now, and adults don’t feel pride simply because they were apart of something of no real meaning.  And yet, you still have them.  Maybe not on display, perhaps tucked away in a closet in a dusty box under piles of things you never use anymore, but you haven’t thrown them out.  Why?

A participation trophy represents something deeper than an accomplishment: memories.  You can look at your participation ribbon from your Grade 2 track and field event, or your little hockey player statue from when you played Novice C2 and could hardly take three strides without falling and be instantly reminded of all the great memories you had in those days.  Participation awards are tangible items that can represent these memories, and that alone should be enough to justify their value.

I know exactly where my participation trophies are: in the same box as my “earned” league championship trophies, provincial championship gold medals, and top scorer awards.  Each one of them carries with it various amounts of pride, but the one constant they all have is the memories they represent.  Maybe I sound “corny” or “soft”, but I wouldn’t trade them for the world.



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