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Are participation trophies hurting child athletes?

Posted at 5:52 AM, Jul 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-14 12:19:34-04

TULSA — A debate is brewing about whether or not child athletes should receive participation trophies.

Many youth sports teams are gearing up for another season, and kids are going to put in hours of work after school and on the weekends trying to figure out how to make that pass or hit a home run. And they will probably get a participation medal or trophy at the end of the season.

But experts are wondering what kind of impact that recognition has on children.

One mom said, “They’re five and six years old. They don't know any different at this age." Another parent argued, "Everybody is playing and trying hard, but if you're excelling, you should be rewarded just like everybody else."

Studies vary as much as opinions, but some research shows children who are praised for efforts with rewards like participation medals and trophies were more likely to try harder and do better.

Psychologist Steve Arcidiacono said, "You've got to ask yourself - what is the point of giving someone a medal or trophy? To me, it's to highlight success, effort, overcoming a challenge. So, the question of whether or not we should give people a trophy for participating kind of depends on if participating in itself is a challenge."

For kindergartners, first graders or first timers at a sport, Arcidiacono adds that participation may carry more weight because, at that age, the goal isn't just to score. Kellen Lewis, a youth soccer coach, explained, "What we're trying to teach kids out here is sportsmanship, good character, team-building, stuff like that."

But many psychologists and experts say participation trophies are detrimental to a child's upbringing.

Ashley Merryman is an author and researcher who has studied winning and losing for more than a decade. She says participation trophies stifle some of sports most important objectives.

Merryman said, "I hate 'everybody gets a trophy' programs. I am more and more vitriolic every time I talk about it . . . What does that teach them? That nothing is worth doing unless they actually get an award."

Sports psychologist Dr. Jack Lesyk agrees and says even the youngest athletes aren't fooled, adding, "Kids are smart enough to realize it has no value. If everyone's getting one for showing up, what is the value? The research shows that when you ask kids across the spectrum, really from age 6 or 7 and up through high school, 'Why are you participating in your sport?' Nine out of ten times they're going to say because it's fun. This is adults thinking you kind of have to bribe these kids."

Merryman says science shows those bribes could be a catalyst for long term issues. "We now actually have data that says kids in high school, kids in college are really struggling," Merryman explains. "They have higher rates of perfectionism. They have higher rates of depression because they don't know how to function and their expectations of success are so high."

She says those high expectations exist because kids are not learning one of life's most valuable lessons - that its OK to lose. Merryman explained, "We've trained them to have these constant needs for rewards. So, we have to start learning that losing is no big deal and it's how you come back this.

Dr. Lesyk says it's not the trophies that are hurting children; what's being said during the presentation of the trophy is what matters.

He suggests if a coach gives participation trophies or medals that he or she attaches a specific accomplishment with each award for the individual child recipient.

Thinking of it in those terms, perhaps it's not the trophies that are the problem - maybe we are just not doing them right.

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