Eric is former athlete and coach with a lifelong love of sports.
I can still see it when I close my eyes—that stupid telephone pole, far off in the distance, beyond the left-field foul line. The groundskeeper at the Little League field mowed as close to the pole as he could, but apparently never dared to wander out that way with a weed trimmer. By early summer, tall grass grew around the pole’s base where the mower of his lawn tractor could not reach, matching the height of the grass in the fields that surrounded our baseball diamond.
One day, as a college athlete, I could sprint from home plate to that pole and back without breaking a sweat. As an eight-year-old kid, I didn’t know that. Back then, it didn’t seem like anyone could make that run without risking their life. Not even the sixth graders.
Nevertheless, at the start of each practice session, our coach would order us to run to that pole and back. He said it was to warm up and improve our conditioning, but we took it as proof that he hated us and wished us to shuffle off from this world before we ever learned to write in cursive.
Every practice we ran from home plate, around the pole, and back again. Every practice I was certain I would not survive the ordeal. Despite burning lungs and legs of jelly, somehow I always remained on my feet long enough to collapse beyond home plate with my teammates. Today, I live to tell the tale.
Unfortunately, not every kid made it. Each season that pole claimed its share of victims, those kids who showed up for a practice or two and then quit the team. Most didn’t quit because they disliked baseball. They quit because, for them, sports were hard.
Sports require you to show up, not just for a few days or weeks, but for months. Sports ask you to put aside your own interests, be part of a team, and give it your best effort. They force you to learn new skills, do things you don’t especially want to do, and fail often. In games, you fail in front of your parents, your friends, and half of your town.
And we had to run around that dang pole, sometimes more than once per practice. It made kids want to quit, and some did.
It was much easier to stay home on a hot day and play video games. When you fail in a video game, nobody is watching.
Sometimes Showing Up Is the Hardest Part
As a child, I wasn’t the greatest athlete. All throughout grade school, I was too tall for my age and lacked the coordination of many of my classmates. I was not always confident in my abilities, but I loved sports, and I loved baseball.
My parents taught me that once you commit to something you never quit, even when times are tough. There was no way I would ever give up baseball, but I sure thought about it on those hot summer days.
Some children aren’t as lucky. Maybe they haven’t developed that love of sports yet. Maybe nobody ever told them they could succeed at something if they committed to it and gave it their best. Maybe they just need to believe in themselves a little more.
Those kids need a little extra encouragement, a push to get them started. I think adults need to recognize that and I believe our Little League did. At the end of each season, we received two items to remember our year. We got to keep our ball caps, and we each got a little trophy.
Our league handed out two kinds of trophies: A small one for every kid on the team who made it to the end of the season, and a larger one for the kids who made the all-star team. I snagged the larger version twice in my Little League career, but even the small ones said something about me, and I knew it had nothing to do with winning.
Those little trophies said I stuck it out. I was part of a team. I had guts. I was a ballplayer. I didn’t quit. They offered a little boost of confidence, and if they did that for me, surely they did the same for those kids who needed it most.
Today, some people would call them participation trophies, and there are those who think they are causing all sorts of trouble in our society. I get the argument. It makes kids soft to give them a trophy just for showing up. It creates unrealistic expectations for what they are about to face in life.
I think that point of view is missing something important, at least in some cases. For kids who lack confidence, showing up is the hardest part, and making it to the end of the season is an achievement in itself.
Winning Matters But Learning Matters More
This is not to suggest we should hold races and give every participant the same reward no matter where they finish, or that a team that finished in first place should get the same trophy as the last-place team.
Competition is important. Measuring yourself against your peers is one thing that makes participation in sports so valuable. However, at their core, youth sports should be about learning.
The goal should be to encourage kids and teach them to love sports for the rest of their lives, to challenge them to do things they don’t think they can do, to show them what they can achieve if they don’t give up.
Yes, winning is important, but let’s not obsess over winning at the expense of these other things. And while we should be sure to reward winners, let’s not alienate those kids who didn’t make the cut.
Maybe looking at a silly little “participation trophy” all winter long means a child will show up again the next season. Maybe a kid who would have dropped out of sports altogether gains a little self-esteem and goes on to something great in life.
There is plenty of time to worry about winning. Once you are a freshman in high school, sports are serious business. There is tremendous pressure to win from your coaches, your school, and your community.
Why attach that pressure to youth sports? Instead, maybe it is better to create a culture that encourages kids to love sports and competition, not dependent on whether they win or lose, but because sports themselves have value.
We All Deserve Memories
When I remember the best things about Little League baseball, only a few moments of glory come to mind. I can recall some exciting wins, a few big hits I made, and a nice catch or two. But there are many more valuable memories.
I remember playing catch with my friends on spring days when there was still snow on the ground, but we couldn’t contain our excitement for the coming season. I recall the glorious leathery scent of my baseball glove. I think back on how the setting sun would illuminate the greens and golds of the fields that surrounded our baseball diamond as we got in our last at-bat on a summer evening.
I remember those sweet few years when anything seemed possible, and I had not yet realized I’d never become a Major League player.
It doesn’t matter if we won or not, so many years ago on some dusty country ball field. The memories matter. Those memories are mine forever, and they were the seeds that sprouted into a lifelong love of sports. Every kid deserves to have those memories.
By the time I grew out of Little League, I had a small collection of trophies on a shelf in my room. Even when I accumulated awards as a high-school athlete, for a while those little trophies remained on display.
I was so proud of them. They said I stuck it out. I was part of a team. I had guts. I was a ballplayer.
And that stupid pole never turned me into a quitter.
This article has been heavy on my own opinions and experiences. Is there a right or wrong answer here? Psychologists appear split on the participation trophy matter, and both sides make good points.
As a coach or parent yourself, you will have to chart your own course. Here are some resources that consider both sides:
- The Participation Trophy Debate: What Psychologists Say, K2Awards.com
- Participation Awards: Good or Bad?, novakdjokovicfoundation.org
- How Do Participation Trophies Affect Children in Youth Sports?, blogs.elon.edu
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
John Coviello from New Jersey on June 16, 2021:
I totally agree that when kids are young learning a sport, "winning matters but learning matters more." Completing a season is an achievement in and of itself for a young person. If it's all about winning and given trophies to the winners when kids are young, some kids just get frustrated and give up. At some point, that changes and competition takes over, but while they're young, they should all feel good that they achieved something.
Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on June 15, 2021:
"and making it to the end of the season is an achievement in itself." Exactly.
Rawan Osama from Egypt on June 15, 2021:
Its very useful and informative article