Participation Trophies Are Silly and Reward The Wrong Thing

–Trophies should be symbols of achievement, not recognitions for trying

I am a strong believer that trophies should be symbols of achievement, not recognitions for trying. That said, I believe giving children participation trophies is a bad idea because they are rewarding the wrong thing – the action of just showing up.

To illustrate why participation trophies are just plain silly, let me share this personal story about trophies:

I have a trophy in my office that I was awarded way back when I was just 12 years old. It’s on a bookcase and it serves as a reminder. But, contrary to what you may be thinking, it’s not there to remind me of my glory days.  Rather, it’s there to remind me that I can accomplish my goals, even when the odds are stacked against me.

You see, the trophy comes from a central Massachusetts Past, Punt, and Kick competition co-sponsored (at the time) by the NFL and Ford Motor Company.  Organized by age, each participant is given three punts, three passes, and three placekicks as part of the competition. Scores are based on both distance and accuracy.

Okay, I’m Athletic, So What?

The reason that this trophy is so significant rests in the fact that earning it took a ton of work and perseverance.

You see, I didn’t have the means to participate in any junior football league (at the time, players had to pay for their own pads and helmets).  This meant that I had no access to coaching (like the vast majority of my competition did). In fact, I didn’t even own a football!

Indeed, the odds of me winning anything were slim.

However, I believed that I had a shot because I loved the game and was pretty good in the sandlot games that I had played with my buddies over the past couple of years.  So, I borrowed a football and a placekicking tee from a friend and I checked out a copy of the book: Winning Football by Bart Starr (circa 1968) from my local library and went to work.

This meant that every day for weeks on end I spent my time reading the book and applying its lessons at the nearby playground. I would go to one end of the field and throw the ball. I would run and retrieve it and placekick it back towards where I threw from.  I would then run and pick up the ball and punt it back towards where I kicked from, and so on. I was just doing what I could to master the art of accurate passing, punting, and kicking.

All the while, friends from school (many fortunate enough to be on the Pop Warner football squad comprised of boys from three area towns) enjoyed making fun of me whenever they saw me practicing at the playground.  They let me know, in no uncertain terms, that they thought I was wasting my time because they were going to win the competition and their coaches were working with them every day after school to make sure that they did.

This, of course, made me question my ability to achieve the goal and introduced some doubt to the firm belief that I had in myself.  But, I stayed the course.

I had a plan. I was seeing some results down at the field.  I knew I was good enough to compete. I was willing to make the personal sacrifice to see it through until the day of the competition.

Win, Place, or Show

There were nearly 250 other kids at the competition that day, all of whom had the benefit of coaching and structured practices to prepare them for the competition.  My passes, punts, and kicks earned me a 3rd place showing and one of only three trophies awarded that day.

While I didn’t win outright (a 13-year-old from a neighboring town earned that distinction), I was quite proud of what I had achieved.

As mentioned, the lessons learned from this experience stay with me to this day.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. Be bold enough to dream big: Who was I to imagine that I could compete in the pass, punt, and kick competition? I didn’t even own a football. But, I did have a vision for myself and chose to defy the odds and go for it. You can, too.
  2. Don’t look for an easy button: It takes courage to work hard. You have to be willing to do what others are unwilling to do. How many 12-year-olds are willing to teach themselves how to properly pass, punt, and kick a football from a library book? There are no easy buttons to be had. So, don’t look for one. Instead, commit to the work needed to succeed, and, guess what, you just might surprise yourself.
  3. Don’t rely on someone else to believe in you: Kids can be so mean! My schoolmates sure were back in the day. But, they provided me with a valuable lesson: you don’t need other people in order to believe in yourself. You have what you need to do that and it’s deep down inside of you.  Let that belief be good enough to pursue your goals.
  4. Success can be achieved outside of the usual channels: How I came to earn that trophy was certainly not conventional – no equipment, no coaching, and no chance. But, I was willing to do what it took to compete and I figured out a way to get to where I wanted to go without those things.
  5. Achievement can shape your future mindset: At the time, did my 12-year-old brain know that my pursuit of a pass, punt, and kick trophy was about to shape my future mindset? No, of course not! Yet, it did.

The whole experience gave me an opportunity to develop self-confidence, self-reliance, and the knowledge that hard work does pay off – all essential lessons came in handy in my adult pursuits that have included starting my consulting and coaching business, writing a half dozen books, and traveling the world lecturing on the topics of leadership, culture and the future of work.

To close

As mentioned at the outset, I think the awarding of participation trophies is silly because they reward kids for simply showing up. To my thinking, they’re being taught all the wrong things by receiving these trophies. Specifically, they’re learning that they should be rewarded for gracing a space with their mere presence, that trying their best is optional and that getting results is not how success is measured (i.e., you just have to show up and you win!).

If my 12-year-old self thought it was going to get a trophy by just signing up for the competition, I doubt I would have put in the effort that it took to earn the trophy that day. I know that I would not have learned anything about dreaming big, working harder than the next person to get ahead nor would I have developed any kind of belief in my own capabilities.

That said, let’s not strip the next generation of kids of the opportunity to earn a trophy and learn the lessons that come from actually doing things that are required to do so.


James M. Kerr
James M. Kerr
James M. Kerr is a management consultant, leadership coach, keynote speaker, author, and columnist. He has consulted with, and coached leaders at, many well-known organizations including The Home Depot, BIC, Accenture, Mitsumi Sumitomo and General Dynamics, to name a few. Jim is an expert in the development and implementation of multi-faceted change initiatives centered on vision and strategy, culture redesign and organizational effectiveness. Indeed, Jim enjoys forging new ideas and devising practical solutions to clients’ broadly relevant business problems, while shape-shifting them into opportunities for their success. Additionally, he hosts the popular The Indispensable Conversation podcast, which features authentic conversations about real topics that impact leaders of all kinds – all in a one guest, one provocative question, one indispensable conversation format. . His work has earned several industry awards, as well, including the highly renowned Global Gurus Top 30 Organizational Culture Award (2022), LeadersHum Top 10 Leadership Power Ranking List and several Thinkers360 Top 10 Worldwide Thinkers awards in the categories of Leadership, Strategy, Culture and The Future of Work. His latest book, Indispensable: Build and Lead a Company Customers Can’t Live Without, (Humanix Books, 2021) has garnered rave reviews from business leaders and the trade press. Work has begun on his 7th book, which he hopes to complete in 2023.

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