49ers Vince Lombardi trophies

Everyone's a Winner!

Education Technology
49ers Vince Lombardi trophies
You don’t get these trophies just for showing up.

You know how the old saying goes, “It’s not whether you win or lose—you get a trophy either way.” Oh, wait, no. That’s the more recent version.

If you’ve got kids participating in group activities (particularly sports and music, I think), there’s a good chance they might have gotten trophies or other awards, sometimes simply for showing up. The idea is that we want to encourage kids to participate, and we don’t want to seem unfair, so we give everyone a trophy just for showing up. But here’s the thing: competition isn’t fair. Sports and games have winners and losers. Some people are better than others.

Ashley Merryman has an opinion piece in the New York Times this week titled “Losing Is Good for You,” in which she talks about, well, letting our kids lose sometimes. There’s an entire chapter on the subject in NurtureShock, which Merryman co-authored with Po Bronson a few years ago, and their recent book, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, digs into competition a little more, and the findings are fascinating.

In her column, Merryman explains that “children aren’t fooled by all the trophies.” They know who’s ahead and who’s behind, even if we tell them that we aren’t keeping score during a soccer game and that “everyone’s a winner.” It calls to mind the recent kerfuffle over the summer reading program at Hudson Falls Free Library in New York: after the same boy won the reading contest five years in a row, the library director wanted to change the contest so that other kids wouldn’t feel bad. The story drew national attention and has resulted in both the library director and a long-time library aide losing their jobs, all because one kid was winning.

Eighty percent of success may be “just showing up,” but to get a trophy I think you should really put in the other twenty percent first. How about you: what’s your experience been with your kids and participation trophies?

Photo at top: “Five Time Winners” photo by Flickr user Ariaski, used under Creative Commons License

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6 thoughts on “Everyone's a Winner!

  1. My 6 year old son definitely has “losing” issues when it comes to games. I think part of the problem is that we started out playing cooperative games at first (his favorite is Forbidden Island) and now he’s showing interest in one-winner games. The maturity is growing, but I just beat him last week at a game of Dungeon Roll and he was so upset. We had a nice long talk about this topic and I started by asking him what he thought I felt every time he won a game. For me, losing a game isn’t a big deal – I enjoy the social aspect and giving my brain a good bit of work… but younger kids lack don’t yet recognize the social part’s value and they most certainly don’t understand the mental exercise that games bring. This all comes with age, and for now I’m okay with the occasional thrown game, especially when I see some new skills/understanding developing and wish to reward creative thinking and play. But I really am looking forward to the day when I can play both my boys some really involved games and see that they enjoy the time together and aren’t focusing so much on the win.

    1. To some extent my older girls still decide whether or not they had fun based on the final tally rather than the experience of playing. They could be rolling on the floor laughing and having a good time, and then as soon as the game’s over, say “I don’t like that game; it wasn’t fun” simply because they didn’t win. They’re getting better at it—this doesn’t happen every time—but I long for the time when they understand that the final result doesn’t negate the experience you have while playing it.

  2. With regards to sports, I don’t see an issue with giving out participation trophies at the U6 level and below. When I was coaching kids soccer, we would have a little team party at an ice cream shop and give out trophies. When the child came forward for the trophy, we would talk about something really great they did during the season or a funny memory. The kids weren’t fooled if we had a losing season, but it doesn’t hurt to remind them of and celebrate the high points. At that age, recognizing that they were trying and succeeded at some level can reinforce the competitive spirit.

    When coaching U8 and above….unless we had an undefeated season or won a little tournament, no trophy. The kids seemed to understand it better than a couple of the parents. At that age, they are old enough that positive reinforcement during games/practices was more important than a trophy.

  3. One of the things I like about archery is that the target doesn’t lie. Either you hit it or you didn’t, and everybody can see it, and there are no excuses. It’s not the bow, it’s not the arrows, the sun wasn’t in your eyes. On the flip side, it’s great because you can have escalating goals. When you start out, hitting the target at all is an achievement. Later, you can try to keep them all inside the next ring, and the next and so on.

    In my beginner class, we finish the lesson with a “balloon round”; I put a bunch of balloons up on the target, generally about 1/3 to 1/4 of the number of participants; for a class of 24, I’ll put up 6-8 balloons, depending largely on the ages of the archers. Each balloon has a dollar in it; break a balloon, win a buck. What’s really sad is I have to tell these kids every week that meltdowns are not allowed.

    “You can be sad, disappointed, frustrated or whatever you feel; you can cry if you feel like it. That’s fine. But you can’t throw a tantrum and you can’t throw my bow. If you think screaming and stomping is going to make me feel bad, you’re sadly out of luck. Archery is a sport of discipline, focus and self-control; if you can’t control yourself, I’m going to tell you that you’re too immature to be here and to not come back until you can. If you don’t pop a balloon today, be strong and brave and say that’s okay, I’ll come back next week and get it.”

    I actually have to say that every week, and I still get full-blown meltdowns with screaming and crying from kids who are far too old to carry on like that. Apparently nobody has ever told them no or challenged them in any way.

    The ones that come back learn quickly how to deal with it, and they become more confident and secure right in front of my eyes.

    1. I don’t know… the same can be said for soccer or football or baseball. Even If kids can’t count, they know if a ball went in a goal or a kid crossed the goal line. I don’t think archery is the only sport that has easily recognized goals. Also, with soccer, the goal gets larger. With baseball, kids move from tee to coach pitch to machine pitch to player pitch. These are escalating goals as well.

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