Some Thoughts on Participation Trophies

Last week, Pittsburgh Steelers Linebacker James Harrison posted on Instagram and Twitter that he was returning the trophies his sons received for participating in their youth football program. The story generated a great deal of attention, as you probably know, on television and in social media.

When I responded to Mr. Harrison’s Twitter post by suggesting that he consider some additional perspective on the matter, a few Harrison fans took vigorous exception to my tweet. (One guy suggested that my post was “retarded.” Another incongruously wanted to know how many Super Bowl champions I’ve raised.)

Among the responses I received, though, was one from Daphne Sashin, a CNN reporter who writes about parenting issues. She wanted a more complete explanation of my thoughts on the topic than I was able to provide in 140 characters.

This subject has gotten a great deal of attention in the media since it was first reported so I thought it might be worthwhile to share my thoughts here on this blog. This, then, is what I wrote:

Ms. Sashin,

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Per your request on Twitter, I’m writing with a few thoughts on James Harrison’s Instagram post about returning his sons’ trophies for participating in sports. Let me preface everything I’m going to write with a few important points: One, I don’t know Mr. Harrison but am confident that he loves his kids tremendously and decided to do this with the very best of intentions. Two, I wouldn’t presume to tell Mr. Harrison (or anyone else, for that matter) how to raise his children. And, third, I am a parent, not a psychologist or a pediatrician. I hope that you’ll contact professionals who are qualified to discuss this topic based on real data (like Nadine Burke Harris, for example) for your article.

Having said all that, let me offer a few thoughts in no particular order.

  • While Mr. Harrison is understandably focused on his own kids, I wonder if he’s considered the fact that his action is likely to diminish the perceived value of the trophies that every other child in the league received. It’s almost certain that, as a professional player and a champion, Mr. Harrison is a big deal among the children who play sports with his boys. His refusal to allow his sons to accept their trophies very likely undermines the league, the coaches, and the other parents who don’t have NFL aspirations for their kids.
  • I find it difficult to understand how setting one’s kids apart from their teammates teaches values like sportsmanship and teamwork, the specific values that most parents are trying to teach when they enlist their kids in sports.
  • It seems to me that there’s a danger of an action like Mr. Harrison’s being misinterpreted by his kids, something along the lines of “Everyone else is good enough for their parents but you’re not good enough for me.” Obviously, his kids are pretty young (they stop giving participation trophies to older kids) and the point he’s trying to make is pretty sophisticated so the chances of this aren’t insignificant. More likely, in my opinion, is that it will become what Dr. Harris refers to as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE).
  • My personal belief is that the most important thing we can do for our kids is to provide them with a foundation of love and support on which they can build, on which they’re secure enough to learn to achieve. That’s been the philosophy that guided my wife and me in parenting our two boys (I’ll admit freely that she has an intuitive understanding of these things that far exceeds my own) and I think it’s worked pretty well.
  • Instances in which parents get overly involved in their young kids’ sports endeavors tend to not work out well. You can Google Jimmy Piersall or Todd Marinovitch for a couple of more famous examples. In my experience, I’ve seen more talented young athletes damaged by their parents than helped. One young man on my younger son’s Little League team was an extremely talented pitcher who was never quite good enough to get his father’s approval. By high school, he’d given up baseball altogether.
  • I disagree with Mr. Harrison’s diminishment of the value of participation, especially at a young age. It seems to me that it’s more than a little important to teach the value of participation and to reward it for young kids. It strikes me as counterproductive to tell children that their participation isn’t adequate. There’s plenty of time later to mold them into champions if that’s what Mr. Harrison believes is important.
  • Finally, I understand and even admire Mr. Harrison’s impetus to foster achievement in his kids. I hope, however, that he isn’t doing so at the expense of their happiness or at the expense of his relationship with them in later years. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to value my kids’ happiness far more than I value any “achievement” of theirs.

Thanks for reaching out. I hope this is helpful.

I’d be interested in getting your thoughts in the Comments section. And, if you’re interested, here’s the TED Talk by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris that I referenced on the subject of Adverse Childhood Events:

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