I played sports all throughout my childhood from the age of 5 until my senior year of high school. It was mostly intramural, but at any rate it was a big part of growing up. At the end of every season it was always the same: every team made the playoffs and, regardless of if a team was winless or undefeated, they immediately went to receive a trophy following a playoff loss.
The trophy wasn’t much, but it always had the same word at the bottom along with the name of the league: “Participant”. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but looking back it was something that to this day continues to be an issue.
Back in August of this year, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison made headlines, and got people talking when he returned the participation trophies his two sons (ages 6 and 8) received. In a lengthy Instagram post, Harrison explained that he wasn’t going to let his sons grow up thinking that they are “entitled to something just because they tried their best”.
Fast forward to Wednesday night when Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams tweeted that he returned his daughter’s participation ribbon she received at her school’s field day. Williams’ tweet read: “I took her Field Day participation ribbon & gave it back to her teacher…then in the next event she got 1st place”.
Williams’ actions are just another example of the issue of giving out participation trophies in youth sports, and the example that the participation trophies can set for people. While, in theory, it’s not a bad idea for everyone to get a trophy so nobody feels left out, in reality it doesn’t send a message that is the best for kids to learn as they grow up.
The thing about playing sports is, even at a young age, you can learn an awful lot. You learn teamwork, communication, and even some leadership as well. One of the most useful things you learn, although you may not realize it at the time, is the hard truth about wins and losses.
As the old cliché goes, “Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose”. It sounds simple, but the fact of the matter is that’s not just sports, that’s life. Life is all about wins and losses. In life sometimes you win, and in life sometimes you lose.
Although they will likely face some criticism for their actions – even though they shouldn’t – it’s not hard to see where Harrison and Williams are coming from. As someone who grew up playing sports where everyone got a trophy, this is becoming more and more clear to me the older I get.
And as I look back to my days in youth sports, it makes sense. Even as kids, like any other athletes, we always wanted to win. At first, when I was really little, they never kept score, and the game always ended in a “tie”. Even when one side clearly scored more, it was still a tie. That didn’t stop some of the players from keeping score on the sidelines. Why would we do that, even at 5-6 years old? Because, while the coaches and parents preached how “no matter if you win or lose, the important thing is to have fun”, we cared most about whether we won or lost. Sure, we had fun too, but just having fun was never enough.
Although I remember every season I played, there are four in particular that stick out to me. Two of them were championship seasons, so of course they mean more to me. The other two mean more to me for a different reason.
The first one was when I was 10. In our first round playoff game, we gave up two unanswered goals after going ahead 1-0 and lost 2-1. I was so upset at the loss that I’ll admit, to this day, it is the only time I have ever cried after a loss. The other season was the year after that. That year we had won every game but 1 in the regular season, only to lose in the first round on penalty kicks (which, by the way, is the worst way to lose a soccer game).
After both seasons, we went to pick up trophies following the loss. Not the first place trophy, but the small ones that say “Participant”. Although the fact that everybody gets a trophy no matter what was supposed be a consolation for being eliminated, I honestly couldn’t have cared less about the trophy (and my teammates all felt the same way). Actually, now that I think about it, I’m not even sure if I still have either one or not.
Some people may wonder why all trophies wouldn’t be saved, but as I got older it made more sense. The reason is that those “Participant” trophies really didn’t mean much to me. The ones I made sure to keep were the trophies from years I won and/or earned a trophy for, even if it was for second place.
This is because when I played sports growing up, what mattered the most at the end of the day, was winning and losing. The funny thing is, that’s exactly how life is. You don’t go about life just participating, you play to win no matter what you do. Unfortunately, things may not always go your way and sometimes you lose. But when you do lose, you come out hungrier next time, just like the next game or season.
Playing sports as a kid wasn’t about just having fun, it’s about winning and losing. Nobody was ever satisfied with a “Participant” trophy, and as I look back, I can’t help but think “Participant trophies may be one of the worst parts of sports growing up.
It may seem like just a trophy, but, especially in today’s politically correct world where everyone is offended by everything at every time and people get so upset about their feelings being hurt, it goes beyond the actual physical trophy. It gives off the idea that no matter how you do, you’ll still get a trophy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work like that.
James Harrison and DeAngelo Williams may seem like they’re being extreme in their actions, but in reality, they get it. They understand that in life not everybody is going to get a trophy, and are trying to instill that in their children, as I will do with my future kids.