The Problem with Participation Awards

female player, ball, sports

female player, ball, sportsHave you ever noticed the trend in today’s society to give everyone who participates in something, no matter how trivial their contribution, some sort of “award” for their participation? Even the worst players on the Little League team get something shiny to hang in their rooms for bothering to show up to the game. Maybe unimportant, but it seems okay. After all, it doesn’t hurt anything, and maybe some appreciation for even the least talented participants is encouraging to them, and helps them want to continue in the sport, right? Well, these little “awards,” though they can be harmless, are actually a manifestation and exacerbation of a bigger problem within society.

What is an Award?

Now, the real problem is not with participation awards themselves, but the mindset that has blessed and propagated them. To understand this big underlying problem, it is first necessary to understand what awards ought to mean. To give an award to someone means that, during that particular competition, he performed the best (or near to it) of anyone. It is a distinction that no one else is going to get in that time and place. Conversely, by giving everyone an award, it’s an easy jump in logic for the losers to think, “Winning doesn’t mean much,” or “You won… but who cares? I’m a winner too!”

For clarification’s sake, I do not intend to say that every kiddie sports club or Little League that gives a participation award intends by it to demean the winners, and there are instances (particularly with the littlest kids, who are able to understand only that someone else got something they didn’t) the fripperies for no reason are not bad.  Again, a cheap medal is not the real problem; rather, the problem is this “everyone wins” mindset that it helps to manifest.

Participation Awards Make Competitions—and Awards—Valueless 

So, these awards detract from the winner and communicate to the losers that losing is not a real loss—what does this cause?  Because the act of winning is devalued, competition itself becomes pretty pointless. There is little to no point in trying at all. But, again, do kiddie competitions really matter that much?  The Little League itself may not, but the idea of competition, approached in the right way, is a good thing, and very important.

Now, as the mindset that can come from participation awards makes competition meaningless, taking the importance away from being the best, naturally it suppresses the positive qualities of competition. But, being the best is not necessary. By now I may sound contradictory, but a clarification is in order. If an athlete just wants to win so he can lord it over everyone else, then not only is winning not important, but it might be better for his character for him not to participate at all. However, if the athlete wants to get better from a love of the sport, or for the sake of achieving a new personal best, then his efforts become a good and worthy pursuit. When one’s perspective is not clouded with the desire to win, then competing in something is bound to lead to both physical and mental betterment.

We Were Made to Strive

We humans were actually intended to do well in our leisure pursuits. When God first created man, his human nature was untainted, and thus, had he been inclined to cultivate an ability in something like tennis, it would likely have been easy for him to master. Even though original sin did come in to the world, and life became hard for man, God still gave us special abilities with which to serve Him; they merely require more work to perfect. Thus, when we cultivate the talents He gave us in ballet or baseball or anything, we become closer to the persons we were intended to be.

Good Ends Require Sacrifice

To return this to participation awards, they in turn show that our society tends to be one of complacency.  Though God intended us to use He gave us for good, our society has lost sight of serving Him as its end. People are now denying that they were made for anything other than “enjoying” this life, just as they see fit. If there is no God, then there is also nothing left to life but seeking out what we want—or at least what we think we want. Furthermore, we have all been given equal opportunity for this “enjoyment” of our lives. Yet, behind the amazing result, what does a real display of talent require? Far from enjoying the ride every moment, a true magnum opus requires sacrifice and denial, blood, sweat, and tears. In order to become really good at something, we have to lay down that to which our society offers great devotion; namely, the enjoyment of the moment. When we make sacrifice for a greater good, even for something as seemingly nonreligious as playing the flute, we are engaging in one of the key practices of the Christian life, specifically, suffering in the moment in order to achieve a greater goal later.

Without Talent, No Jealousy?

Even apart from wanting to enjoy the moment, the secular world has another reason for contempt of this sacrificial dedication.  Most of us have heard the line from the John Lennon song, Imagine, “I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will be as one.”  Though the song itself is a call to atheism, the line sums up the reason well; if no one is striving to better their innate gifts so all can be “one,” and equal with each other, then no one need have any reason to feel “slighted” for being less talented.  Perhaps everyone would be happier in choosing this “oneness.”  Yet, what sort of a world would this be if the dancers never danced, the inventors never innovated, and the Cubs never bothered trying to win the World Series?  Personally, I think that the world would have a lot less joy and light, in more ways than one.

The Consequences

Now comes another interesting part: the reader may now be asking “Is she really blaming the whole culture of complacency on kiddie participation awards?” No—that borders on the ridiculous. Rather, in addition to being a manifestation of the problem, they exacerbate it.  If the kids of today are used to being recognized for doing nothing, they will more than likely carry that idea into adulthood, and be less productive in later life because they will be used to being praised for literally doing almost nothing.  The awards seem to show that people are expected to both commend and be commended for effort’s lack instead of its presence.

The Solution

If the people who do have good work ethics do not do anything about it, the culture of complacency, or at least the conditioning toward it, is only going to get worse. Obviously, since I am not a parent, I am not an expert in raising children.  However, if any of you are reading this and would like to know what to do about it, here is my opinion.  If your son or daughter gets an award for coming in last and does not make anything of it, then follow his lead. If he thinks it’s special because “Look Mommy! I was in a real competition!” that is fine too. The problem comes when it turns into, “I’m just as good as the ‘winner,’” and if you see it turning into that, maybe sit him down and explain that, while winning is hardly everything, it should be a nice reward for hard work, and if he tries to work hard, he can win too. He should understand that the stronger the effort, the larger the payoff.  Now if only secular society could understand that too, the world would be a better place. Even when we cannot see that God exists, the life that He meant for us to live remains.

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6 thoughts on “The Problem with Participation Awards”

  1. Adam seems to miss the point. No one is saying than anyone should be treated without the compassion due them by their status. His personal situation aside, which obviously informs his views, there is a vast number of our youth that are being taught that, like Woody Allen, 90% of life is just showing up. Those who are given the blessing of talent AND make the effort to use it should be recognized as they enrich all of us. Those who are exceptional in their own way should be acknowledged in their own appropriate manner. To conflate everyone into one homogeneous group is both erroneous and damaging. The author this article is quite correct in pointing out that the world is not always a caring place and it is a mitzvah to help all to deal with it in the most effective manner appropriate to them.

  2. Adam Aquinas–I sympathize with your concern for disabled children (I dare say we all do), and for sure it’s important to give them affirmation and let them know that their efforts are worthwhile. On the other hand, I don’t think the kind of storming vitriol with which you voice this concern is the best expression of Christian love and understanding.

    Cecily’s point is not that anyone who tries their best is bound to come in first eventually, or that anyone who never wins is necessarily at fault. She does, after all, observe that the participation awards can be harmless in themselves. The problem only arises when a child who IS capable of more concludes that there is no point to giving that more (a problem that, as she notes, is hardly limited to children–the article touches on many aspects of culture beyond Little League games).

    Perhaps our culture, with its focus on productivity and outward accomplishment, puts too much value on awards. An award is no kind of statement about anyone’s worth as a person, but only about that person’s performance. If those who don’t get them begin to question their value as persons on that basis, an intervention is necessary–they need to understand that their intrinsic worth is not based on their ability to achieve some outward goal, but on their very being as children of God, made in His image. (Again, disabled kids will likely need different standards; the article is speaking generally. It doesn’t hurt to point this out, but I don’t think there’s any need to get angry.)

    In his book HALLOWED BE THIS HOUSE, Catholic author Thomas Howard discusses this understanding of awards (i.e. as assessments of a performance, not a person). “Ordinary athletics well done is a worthy thing: so in hailing the athlete, we celebrate all athletics, saying in effect, ‘This achievement here is what the rest of you are working at. It is worth working at.’ . . . Nobody is urging that this man here who can run a mile in four minutes is a better MAN than this man over here who totters in four minutes later. The laurel says only one thing: he is a better RUNNER. He may be a cad into the bargain, and the loser may be a saint; that can be acknowledged in another ceremony.”

    I don’t think either Mr. Howard or Cecily had any intention of implying that we should not make a special effort to affirm and encourage disabled children. Rather, the point is that A) a performance well done is a thing worth celebrating and B) while encouragement for all is good, we must be careful not to let it become a reason not to care.

    On this Catholic site dedicated to promoting the glory of God, let’s make a particular effort to treat one another as brothers and sisters, and, should we see words that trouble us, to give each other the benefit of the doubt and voice our concerns with charity. In the words of James 3:10, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.”

  3. This blog post is borne of ignorance and demeans Christian mercy and human understanding. The undertone, supported by comments, is that there are winners and ,losers, that there are the best, the better and non-achievers. It communicates that there are first and that there are last and that the losers know they are losers and should deal with it; that losers should try try harder.
    I am a disability advocate and care giver for a spastic quad son. No, he will never get a first, second, third award, nor even a next to the last reward but an award for just being there is deserved …. he is no better nor worse than the trophy winner. I know kids with Down Syndrome, Lesch-Nylan, chromosomal anomalties, severe developmental delays, etc. etc. They show up and need to be recognized. It has litlle to do with “political correctness” but everything to do with humanity and unconditioned recognition of their personhood. See kids who are so much “better” will never motivate them to be better, because they can’t. Failure will teach them something, that they are are failures. This sis perhaps the most unChristian blog I have read and certainly has nothing to do with “the truth the way the church teaches.” Shame…..
    Making the disabled, the kid without a father who never learned to throw a ball, the poor who could never afford a glove, etc…….telling them they can’t make the grade and should try harder? Read the book…Matt 18:6 :But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

  4. Kids know who won and who lost quite well.

    We have participation trophies and because we are putting our children in competitive environments before they are developmentally able to handle it. We have pre-schoolers playing soccer. Pre-schoolers can count goals, but they are developmentally incapable of handling losing. So, to keep the losing team from breaking down inconsolable 4 year old tears, we give everyone a trophy and pretend that everybody won.

    But we don’t question the wisdom of having a 4 year old playing a competitive game.

    By school age, they are able to understand winning and losing, but old habits and old patterns die hard.

    1. So true, and the more disabled, the poorer, the homeless, the fatherless/motherless, the intellectually impaired, the deaf, the wheel chair bound, etc……they know well about the winners and the losers, and everytime someone points out that they are less than they could be no matter how hard they try, the failure becomes moreso ingrained. It’s to bad that trophies are not given to those with quality of heart, because then they could win. Competition and award is the stuff which society thrives on….it is note the gateway to heaven. Reflect on the Parable of the sheep and goats in Matt 25. I wounder if Jesus would have been an outstanding athlete, etc? Those are not the folks he hung with with We reward the wrong things as humans…..

  5. Each of us has skills and talents that the next person doesn’t have and it’s important that children learn early to strive to do their very best without rewards except a sense of satisfaction. When they grow up the reality is that they are not going to be rewarded for doing what’s expected of them. Going above and beyond that might garner a reward of some kind or perhaps not. They need to lean to deal with failure and still feel they have done their best.

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