Of the questions I’ve fielded since writing a book about losing, the one that seems to pop up most in interviews is about participation trophies (the other one is about Donald Trump, which is a long and complicated discussion for another day). It’s a topic that faithfully strikes a nerve, to the extent that the mere phrase conjures images of spoiled, over-entitled kids, all of whom can be expected to be blown over by the first breath of adversity.
One of my first interviews in researching my book, Win at Losing, was with the actress Susan Lucci, where I described my experience with two sons who didn’t handle losing particularly well.
“But isn’t this the age where no one loses and everyone gets a trophy?” she asked me. I responded that it’s more complicated than that.
What I’ve found about participation trophies is while people have strong opinions about them, those opinions are often misguided. For starters, there seems to be this belief that this is only a recent phenomenon. But I’m 42, and I, too, had a bedroom of trophies growing up, and most were for the noble distinction of showing up on the last day.
To listen to the conventional wisdom, the reason we give a trophy to everyone is because then no one has to lose, and thus we are spared the uncomfortable dynamic of kids crying en masse, which then drastically cuts down on the number of conciliatory ice cream cones we’re compelled to buy on the way home from the field. This is a relief for not only the kids, but also the adults, and it's a windfall for the manufacturers of those plastic gold trophies with the faux-marble bases.
Mind you, this debate has become about far more than trophies, or sports, because by one view, participatory trophies represents some rudimentary form of socialism, in which the achievements of some are minimized to offset the failures of others. When protesters congregated outside Trump Tower in the aftermath of November’s election, I read dozens of social media comments about how the Democrats couldn’t wrap their head around losing, all stemming from a generation “where everyone gets a trophy.”
To be clear, I have problems with participatory trophies for the same reasons I wrote a book about losing. If the purpose of rewarding everyone a trophy is to insulate our kids from losing, then we’re depriving them the rich experience of working through setbacks and ultimately learning from them. At some point all of our kids will have to navigate disappointment, so I’m an advocate of giving them a healthy amount of exposure even at a young age.
But more important, I've learned that for all of our efforts to shield them from losing, our kids are far more perceptive than we give them credit for. My two boys always know the score, even when there's not a scoreboard in sight. When they were in the youngest levels of youth hockey, their teams played “jamborees” against other towns, with three concurrent games of cross-ice hockey taking place on the same rink. These were messy, largely disorganized affairs. Half the kids struggled to remain upright. Most of the teams were without a goalie. The kids would play for three hours against five different teams, there’d be a goal every seven seconds, and later they’d down fistfuls of Munchkins in the locker room while their parents untied their skates.
When we returned home, my wife would ask how it went.
“We scored 76 goals,” my son Charlie would immediately say. There was no scoreboard, nor were they really any wins and losses, and yet I was sure this number was accurate, all boys possessing some savant-like ability to calculate the score of whatever contest they’re part of. The point is we adults can try to create the illusion that everyone ended the season on equal footing, but most kids have already devised a hierarchy on their own.
But where my stance on trophies tends to become more nuanced is in recognizing that wins and losses with kids in sports is an imprecise science anyway. One team has four kids who are picking blades of grass in the corner, and the other team has three kids who are already shaving. Are we really solving any mysteries here? If anything, my resistance to turning youth sports into a straight meritocracy has nothing to do with the discouraging elements of losing, and more to do with the counterproductive self-satisfaction that stems from success.
The most influential voice on this dynamic is the Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, who has advocated instilling in our kids a “growth mindset” over a “fixed mindset.” Dweck is essentially distinguishing between the kids who learn to embrace challenge, and those who merely seek validation that they’re better. Dweck’s belief in the potency of a growth mindset is why she believes praise should always center around effort over ability, and striving over results.
With that as a backdrop, I believe there’s greater merit to rewarding not just the winning kids, but the ones who show admirable effort and resolve: the most improved, the hardest working, the one kid who showed up for practice even in an ice storm. The point isn’t to anoint these kids with hollow consolation prizes, nor is it to distance them from the sensation of failure. Rather it’s to recognize that success at a young age isn’t nearly as important as the habits you develop along the way.