Participation Trophies: Internal vs External Motivation

IMG_1275I love that my children enjoy playing on sports teams, but I am frustrated with the post season participation trophies and medals. When I was a kid there was none of this. I received trophies if I placed in the top three spots in a tennis tournament or received a ribbon for finishing in the top ten spots in a ski race. Today a child can expect to receive a trophy just for showing up a few times to practice or games. What message does this send our children?

My children play on sports teams to have fun, learn the skills of the sport, make friends, and get some physical activity. Within all of this they learn to work hard, persevere, and be a team player. When I sign my children up to play a sport each season I discuss with them their commitment to the team. I make sure they know that the team comes before birthday parties, sleepovers, etc. They’ve learned some lessons along the way such as staying up until midnight the night before they have a soccer game isn’t always the best idea, and I will still make them go to the game despite their crankiness and lack of sleep. My children have also learned that by working hard in practice, they improve, and may be rewarded by getting to play a certain position. The focus of being part of a team should be about showing up, working hard, and listening to coaches because a child wants to, not because a reward is expected at the end.

Arguments suggest that participation trophies boost self-esteem, makes a child feel wanted, or inspires him to keep going and work hard. Personally I have seen plenty of kids on the field who exude plenty of self-expression and self-esteem, whether it’s the little girl playing soccer in a tutu or the little boy dancing on third base. They may not be the best athlete out on the field, but they are having fun and isn’t that what matters? Today’s recreational sports programs are designed to rotate children in all positions despite athletic ability. I have yet to see a child left out or made to feel like he wasn’t contributing to the team at these levels. Obviously as children move onto travel teams, the outcome is slightly different, and those kids are not receiving participation trophies anyhow.

Children need to learn how to internally motivate themselves rather than relying on external motivators, such as snacks or trophies. This will allow them to handle disappointment later in life, such as not getting a grade or job they wanted. In life you have to earn what you get. Things are not or should not just be handed out. I feel that participation trophies teach kids that they just have to show up to get a prize. They come to expect them once they start playing sports, and this in turn leads to a feeling of self-entitlement. As adults we know that if we want a raise or a particular job we have to present our best selves, work hard, be a team player, and commit. How will our children learn to do this if everything is just given to them for no real reason?

Both my children have played on travel teams or have taken part in individual competitions. Their teams have finished in the top two spots, or they have won a free throw shooting contest and been honored with a trophy for such feats. My children recognize which trophy means more, the one where an actual accomplishment is represented, and have relegated their participation trophies to the closet or garbage. They have played on both winning and losing teams, and are learning how to be gracious winners and gracious losers. They are learning that it is important to not only show up, but make a concentrated effort on improving in order to contribute to the team.

Perhaps instead of trophies at the end of the season coaches could make up serious and silly certificates to hand out to each player. When I was the captain of my high school cross country team we (the other captains and  myself) sat down and drew up awards for each of our teammates. This is also something we do at the end of each Girls on the Run season. I worked with a soccer coach that chose to recognize one player after each game for his effort and contribution by giving him the “golden ball”. The athlete would return it the next game, and it would be handed to another player for his showmanship. I like these ideas because they are specific towards the individual, and in some cases gives the athlete something to aspire to.

Self-esteem and success comes from within. External motivators (i.e. prizes) only deter a child from learning these life lessons. Once a child can learn to motivate himself internally, will he truly reap the benefits and rewards of his success.

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