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Why James Harrison was wrong about participation trophies

I know that I promised that the next podcast would be a Q & A podcast, and it will be... after we address this.


I wanted to post a timely response to James Harrison making his kids give back their participation trophy while it was still in the news and still relevant.   In case you missed it, you can check out the article on it:




After James Harrison posted his opinion on participation trophies on Istagram, there was a lot of response, mostly in support of Harrison and his position.  I agree with a certain amount of this sentiment, and do believe we have a entitlement problem with players and parents in our sports system.  


I disagree with him that the "participation trophy" is the reason why.


1.) Kids know the difference.

He's not giving the kids the enough credit.  They know the difference between a participation trophy (or medal, or certificate) and the trophy for winning the "championship."   We act as though they are somehow tricked into thinking they "won" by giving them a trophy at the end of the season.


2.) Winning at age 6 and 8 is for adults, not kids.  

Did your team with the championship in the 8 year old coach pitch league?  Don't remember do you?  Neither do I.


But I do remember getting to the field early with my dad and taking groundballs, flyballs, and playing catch. I remember learning the rules, and learning how to hit a pitched ball.  I remember learning that striking out or making an error wasn't the end of the world.  I couldn't tell you if we won every single game, or lost every single game.  And it doesn't matter.


The research is very clear, kids under 12 don't participate in sports for wins and losses.  Wins and losses at the youth level are for the parents.  The kids want to have fun, learn about the game, compete (win or lose), and spend time with their friends.


If they accomplish these goals, the winning and losing will take care of itself as they mature.


Check out our "End of season, success checklist," to ensure your players get the most out of every season. 



3.) Winning gives talented youth athletes (and parents) a false sense of accomplishment

Imagine you have a very talented young athlete (maybe you do!) and the only way they are validated is by winning.  If they won, they were good enough, if they lost, they weren't. The reality is, they will probably have little trouble winning, because they are more talented than almost all other players.


In fact, they can probably not play very well and still win.  Maybe they can even not try very hard and still win.  They may be able to go several years, and don't get much better, but still win.


As long as "winning" is what validates them and their parents, their lack of effort and lack of improvement can go unnoticed because they are still bringing home the 1st place trophy.


THIS is a great source of entitlement in youth sports.  They begin to believe they deserve to win because they always have.  Then when the less talented players, or the players who matured later, begin to catch them, they have trouble dealing with it because they have never had to work hard to win, or compete for playing time.


In fact, I would argue that an overemphasis on winning makes players fearful of competition.  If the only validation you get from competition is winning, why would you put yourself in a a challenging situation where you might not win?


4.) It's about the message, not the trophy.

Let your kids keep their participation trophies, medals, or certificates, but have a conversation with them about it.  Ask them if they know why they got it.  You may be shocked at their response.  My guess is they feel very lukewarm about the trophy because they know everyone got one.


Then talk to them about the effort they put in, if they had fun, what they learned from their coaches, HOW they played and practiced, and what they'd like to get better at for next year.  Use the participation trophy as a conversation starter.



5.) James Harrison wouldn't be where is his without less talented players who tried their best.

There is little doubt that James Harrison is one of the most gifted athletes on the planet.  Not only is he talented, but he has worked incredibly hard to reach his performance levels.  It is this combination that has lead to a potential Hall of Fame NFL career.


But nobody accomplishes everything on their own.  He probably had countless, less talented players line up across from him in practice whose efforts pushed him every day to be better. Every team and every player need people pushing them to get better on a daily basis.  Maybe their efforts didn't earn them a Pro-Bowl or even a spot on the team.  In his view, they would be considered failures.


But those less talented players, who show up every day, try their hardest, and push others around them to get better are the life blood of every successful athletic program, and should celebrated as much as, or more than, the more talented players who grab all the newspaper headlines.


6.) Winning is often out of your control.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in individual sports.  Let's look at a track meet for example.  If my personal best in the mile is 5:30, and I'm running against someone who has consistently run sub-5:00, it would be very unlikely that I will win that race.  If winning is the only measure of success, there is virtually no chance for me to succeed in that race.


However, if effort and improvement are the goal, I can run a 5:25 mile, lose by 30 seconds and be successful.


The same should hold true in team sports like baseball and football, it's just harder to see.  So remove the final score for your critique of the game, make effort and improvement the primary source of success, and you'll be surprised what starts happening on the score board.


7.) He gets a participation trophy every week.

$78,125.  That's will be James Harrison's participation trophy every week this year.  I highly doubt he will give that back if he doesn't win.


But I'm not going to ask him to give his participation trophy back.  I'm ok with him taking that game check if they lose.  I have no doubt that he will trying his hardest to win, trying to get better every week, and will be contributing in a positive manner for his team.  For that, I say he deserves his participation trophy!


Do we have an entitlement problem with players and parents in youth, travel, and high school sports... yes.  Is it caused by participation trophies, no.


I would LOVE to hear your thoughts on this topic.  Please comment below on your experiences and thoughts.


Get a copy of our "End of season, success checklist," to ensure your players get the most out of every season. 

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