Why I Was Wrong To Hate Participation Trophies

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I used to be just like you. “Participation trophies are ruining this country! We’re becoming a nation of coddlers and wimps! In the real world, there are clear winners and losers — I’ll never give my kid a participation trophy!” I said. That was before I had kids.

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When my oldest kid, Jack, first started playing soccer I was shocked to find out they didn’t even keep score. Well, they didn’t keep score, but I did. Jack’s first team was terrible. Not only did they not win a single game, the only goal the Blue Lightening scored all season came when the other team kicked the ball into their own goal by mistake. At the end of the season, I wanted to throw his participation trophy in the garbage on the walk back to the car.

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Jack just finished his third season of soccer a few weeks ago. On the last Saturday of the season, he collected his trophy and then started tee-ball the following Saturday. Maybe that’s when it hit me. I was totally wrong about participation trophies, what they mean, and what behaviors they are rewarding.

Participation trophies aren’t just a way to make everyone feel good about themselves. Maybe they’re that too, but when Jack gets a participation trophy it also means:

  • He signed up to try something new.
  • He took initiative and tried to learn a new skill.
  • He finished what he started.
  • He had the discipline to show up for the practices and games.
  • He practiced and tried to get better.
  • He actually did win a competition — he beat out the 95 percent of kids whose parents decided not to have their kids participate in sports yet.

So let’s recap. Participation trophies reward trying new things, practicing, and finishing what you started.

Are these the traits of losers or wimps? If we used more accurate monikers like Initiative Trophies, Diligence Rewards, or Finish What You Started Badges, would you feel differently?

When we reward people for showing up with a good attitude, having a willingness to get better, and seeing the effort through to completion, we are creating more winners, not less. We are rewarding the habits that lead to high performance.

Let’s leave the little kid sports world for now, and come back to the real world — the adult world. The world of jobs, bills, and competition for scarce resources. This is the world where winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Right?

How would I feel if the middle 70 percent of my team showed up to work everyday, was willing to practice to get better, and always finished what they started?

There are about 500 people on the team I lead at work. What would I do with a bunch of participation trophy babies on a team of that size? How would I feel if the middle 70 percent of my team showed up to work every day, was willing to practice to get better, and always finished what they started? I’d be tickled pink! As a leader, I know I can lead people like this and win consistently. It’s much harder to lead quitters, people who won’t try new approaches or develop new skills, people who are too cool to practice, and people who don’t show up to play.

I get the other side of the argument. In the real world, my company — any company — can’t be extraordinary without extreme winners. Don’t I want extreme winners on my team? Of course I do. I have a bunch of them on my team now!

When I think about the absolute best on our team, our top 20 percent, our Michael Jordans, most of the extreme winners I know, like Jordan, are intrinsically motivated. They’re not doing it for the trophy, and they don’t care who’s getting or who’s giving out rewards. They’re winning for winning’s sake. My role as a leader of extreme winners is more to remove obstacles and provide interesting challenges than to coddle their performance. And they, like Jordan, make the other 70 percent of participants better along the way. More winners, not less.

One last thought on participation trophies before we part.

Maybe Lombardi was right, and maybe winning is the only thing. I feel that way most of the time. Then sometimes I feel like I take myself and my work way too seriously. Maybe I put too much pressure on myself. If only I could relax, have fun, and enjoy the game every now and again. I think these might be important life skills we should teach people. Wait, I have an idea! Maybe we can create a little reward for our kids for this sort of thing.

Check out more from John Demma at his website.

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