Let's not blame the trophies.
First, it's important to note that I'm not addressing the concept of "grade inflation" or the idea that every child in a given class is an honor student (as was eloquently written about by Michael Sigman in his article "When Everyone Gets a Trophy, No One Wins.")
I'm writing about sports -- and specifically the types of trophies that athlete, and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison denied his children and posted about on Instagram. In his post, Harrison pointed out that "Sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better."
Here's the thing. When you're nine years old, it's probable that your best isn't going to be good enough. In fact, maybe when you're that age the functions associated with being on a team, learning to accept that other people play before you and that you're not cut out to be an athlete may actually be your best.
My father wasn't in the NFL. I was a marginal athlete -- but I still love and play sports.
I was getting Little League trophies for being part of the team long before they became controversial. I didn't have the luxury of being one of the "stars" -- but I knew who the stars were -- we all did. They were the guys who got the MVP (most valuable player) and were named team captain. They were the kids with a drive that I didn't have for sports, who were ultra-competitive, and who cried when our team lost a game. They were often the kids with parents who were driving their sporting careers, even though, as eight-year-olds, they were a long way from the majors.
I wasn't ever going to be one of them.
But I loved getting my year-end trophy. I loved having the coach say a few encouraging words about me at the season ending banquet. I liked being part of a team -- a group of kids who had been forged into friendship by our ups and downs on the field -- and watching my teammates each get recognized and kidded about events during the past season was as fun as the games for me.
We knew who sucked, and we knew who didn't.
My trophy wasn't about my on-field achievements, at least that's not what it represented to nine-year-old me. It reminded me that I was on a team with my school pals. It reminded me that I should be at the game a half hour before game time so that I could warm up. It reminded me that I shouldn't ask the coach when he was going to put me into the game. It also reminded me that I had made one miraculous catch, and even though I'd never gotten a hit that year, my friends accepted me as a member of their team.
So, why would we want to deny our children an icon that would similarly remind them of those experiences? Trophies aren't entitlements. This isn't about teaching our children that only the strong survive (at age six through twelve). This is about marking the fact that they had kept a commitment and shown up to the games. That they had experienced the wins and losses with everyone else, and had contributed, to the best of their abilities, to the outcomes of those contests.
As far as I can tell, none of my peers lost their "drive to want to do better" because they'd gotten a trophy for participating. Many of my Little League teammates grew up to be hard-working professionals, run businesses and even supervise school districts.
I coached Little League. I coached AYSO. My kids had winning and losing records, but all of my clubs were taught what it meant to compete and to be part of a team. If the league didn't provide trophies, I would make a certificate for my players. I gave a Sportsmanship Award. I gave a Best Attitude certificate, and then a series of funny, personalized "awards" like the "Time Award" for a player who took a licking and kept on ticking. These awards were given at a group event, with appreciation, understanding and humor.
Not everyone on our team was great, but all of them made some sort of contribution -- even if their contribution was teaching the better players how to be patient with teammates who weren't as skilled as they.
My mantle no longer holds my participation trophies, or those of my children, but all of our trophies served a valuable purpose in our lives. In those moments they reminded us that we were part of a team, something bigger than ourselves -- a lesson that shouldn't be lost on today's youth.