The Role of Internal Motivation in Sports
I must admit a bias against the awarding of participation trophies to kids even if they do not win a sports contest. From an ethical perspective it runs the risk of harming one’s internal motivation to work as hard as possible; do you very best; and feel pride in an accomplishment. It also can create the false impression there are no consequences for our actions. In short, it gives the false sense that something worthwhile has been accomplished. Yes, the kid competed and that’s worthy of parental support. But, it’s best to learn how the world works at a young age.
A Reason-Rupe poll finds that when it comes to kids and their trophies, 57 percent of Americans think only the winning players should receive them. Another 40 percent say all kids on a sport team should receive a trophy for their participation. I am somewhat surprised by the relatively high percentage supporting such awards. Some argue it is a reflection of today’s entitlement society and illustrative of what millennials have come to believe.
Drilling down on the concept of awarding participation trophies, here are the good points:
- Kids may not have psychological awareness before they reach a certain point in their lives (e.g., 7th grade) so losing without recognition of effort can negatively affect their psyche.
- Giving participation trophies helps to build self-esteem at an impressionable age.
- Watching other kids receive a trophy and not receiving one yourself can be degrading.
- Awards build excitement in the kids for the game and the desire to come back and try harder the next time.
- Participation trophies build camaraderie and a sense of belonging to a team, which can help in workplace situations.
- Learning about sportsmanship helps to build a sense of fairness that everyone contributes in some way to accomplishing a goal and should be recognized for doing so.
The bad points about participation trophies is they give false hope that performance at the same level will be recognized whether the work was done well or not. Beyond that:
- Participation trophies overprotect our kids against failure; something that is part of growing up and developing a strong work ethic.
- Rewards work when they are earned by the winners regardless of the effects on those who don’t win.
- Kids who win may see their efforts as being devalued since everyone gets an award regardless of how hard they tried; how well they prepared; and the team effort.
- Overprotecting kids because we don’t want their feelings to get hurt simply shields them from what they will encounter at later ages in life.
- The more trophies given out, the less each one means.
- The cost of the awards could be put to better use: improving sports facilities; hiring better coaches.
Some say participation awards should be given to recognize individual achievement, such as “best teammate;” “great sportsmanship.” The problem is some kids will still be left out so the negatives are present.
Professional athletes such as former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, James Harrison, have voiced their opinions on this topic. Harrison posted a picture on Instagram in August 2015 with the following caption: “I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing; participation trophies. While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy.”
This may be an extreme view, especially in today’s pursuit of self-interest culture. Still, I keep thinking what if we didn’t give out participation trophies and the next time there is a championship game, the team and players that lost before now are the winners. I can’t imagine a more self-satisfying feeling and boost to the self-esteem of our kids.
Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 25, 2020. Dr. Mintz's Ethics Sage blog was recognized as one the top 100 in philosophy (#23) by Feedspot (https://blog.feedspot.com/philosophy_blogs/). He recently published a book, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior, that is available on Amazon. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics.