Do participation awards encourage hard work or a lack of achievement?

Do participation awards encourage hard work or a lack of achievement?

Hailey Inmon, Staff Writer

And the trophy goes to… everyone?  For something so small and arguably useless, participation awards have inspired a lot of controversy.

But what are they actually? According to wikipedia, “ A participation award is a trophy given to children who participate in a sporting event but do not finish in first, second, or third.” They are given out to encourage kids and to give them something to remember their experience. They also can boost kids’ self confidence.

Unfortunately, not all positive things result from giving out participation awards. “Trophies used to be awarded only to winners, but are now little more than party favors: reminders of an experience, not tokens of true achievements,” said Betty Berdan, a high school junior and athlete from Connecticut. Some, like Berdan, feel that participation awards celebrate mediocrity and lessen the value of “real” honors.

The definition of participating just means to take part in. Taking part in something does not always mean trying your best or putting forth your best effort.  Therefore, these awards can be problematic because children are getting rewarded for just showing up. This can send the wrong message to kids–making them think that all they have to do is be there. If this is what they believe then they may be shocked to learn that that is not how rewards works in the real world.  Jobs and monetary bonuses are only given to the best workers. 

On the other hand, some believe that awarding participation teaches kids to keep a commitment. Participation awards arguably teach kids that talent and winning are not the most important things–that working hard and keeping a commitment are valuable too. 

“Ultimately, participation trophies mark the fact that these kids kept a commitment and showed up to the games. That they experienced the wins and losses with everyone else, and contributed, to the best of their abilities, to the outcomes of those contests,” said NY Times author Richard Greenberg.

Perhaps these awards could encourage children to try their best by acknowledging that trying one’s best might look different from different people.  Kids may be discouraged if their best isn’t good enough to earn an award.

By doing a simple act of handing out a trophy, it can make a considerable impact on kids’ self esteem, especially kids who may have never ¨won¨ a trophy before.

The importance of these little plastic honors in society can be seen by the fact that “trophies are a 3 billion dollar-a-year industry in the United States and Canada,” according to The NY Times.

Jonathan Fader, Ph.D., who specializes in sport and performance psychology, says that trophies do little to motivate.  “Countless studies have shown that we’re more committed to an activity when we do it out of passion, rather than for an external reward such as a trophy.” 

Some still believe that participation awards can be important to making younger kids feel good and to keeping them interested in sports.  But as kids grow older, many agree those trophies become less important.

Depending on the age or level, participation awards can be a good thing. But at some point sports or competitions should move beyond participation awards, and reward the winners.”

— Mr. Lubin, MHS Varsity Girls Soccer Coach



While this debate often center around sports, not all participation awards are sports related. Some schools give out awards to all students at the end of the year. In addition to giving out awards for best grades, there are awards for effort and attendance, kindness and improvement.  Many schools give out certificates for finishing the grade level. 

Certain schools, including Mayfield Middle School, have done away with traditional Honor Rolls or other awards based only on grades. The common reason given for this shift is that students who tried their best may not have gotten good enough grades.  Many cite the idea that excluding students hurts feelings.

But is awarding all students diminishing the success of the students who actually excelled?  Is it possible to acknowledge the accomplishments of a few without hurting the feelings of the majority?  And if feelings do get hurt, does that discourage continued effort or encourage even harder work?  These are the questions that keep the controversy behind participation awards going, because the answers often depend on the individual and what motivates him or her.