On the Evil of Participation Trophies

When I was 8 years I received a participation trophy for swimming. This trophy created an insatiable desire to be recognized for everything I did or tried. Some ten years later I dropped out of school when I realized my 0.4 grade point average would not garner me recognition as a valedictorian. The downward spiral that was caused by my swim team participation trophy has not yet abated some 36 years later, or not.

I did receive a small participation trophy for my efforts as an 8 and under on the 1981 Oakwood Valley Club (OVC) swim team. Each year my OVC trophy got a little bigger and they looked nice on the shelf of my room, but these trophies never confused me about whether or not I was a good competitive swimmer. My string of 5th and 6th place finishes could not be ignored; I was bad. At the awards ceremony where the participation trophies were presented good swimmers got other, real, awards that I coveted. I was keenly aware of the difference between their awards and my trophy.

When I was 11 my little league baseball team won the league championship for which I also received a trophy. The next two years I made all-star teams and I received trophies for those as well. Which awards do you think meant the most to me?

Years later I disposed of my eleven swimming trophies without much thought, but the baseball trophies? They were spared this culling because they had more (some?) meaning. Both James Harrison (whom I like, go Steelers!) and Bryce Harper (no comment) have attacked the awarding of participation trophies but my hunch is that their efforts never lacked recognition. If a league wants to give some token award for participation, I don’t care. I am also fine with a league awarding nothing for participation. Either way, the trajectory of a players life will not be altered. Life ultimately teaches us the value of our efforts.

Kids aren’t stupid; they know, or eventually will come to know, the true value of a participation trophy, but maybe for a little while, the trophies will look nice on a shelf.

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