Participation trophies

My husband, an older millenial, asked “Were participation trophies ever a real thing?” He never got any–at most he got some participation ribbons. But yes, participation trophies were absolutely literal physical objects. Myself, a mid-millenial, got a few of the things.

But in the public conversation, the metaphor of the participation trophy has overtaken their physical reality.

Yeah, I got a few of the participation trophies, back when I played soccer in grade school. I was awful at soccer. In retrospect, our whole team was bad, being composed of a bunch of kids who may or may not have been forced into it by their parents. But at the time I felt like I was particularly bad, like I dragged the whole team down, and I didn’t understand why I was there at all. I got a trophy for doing that, every year.


soccer trophy
Our trophies looked a bit like this. Source: Crown Awards, “America’s Largest Awards Manufacturer”

In the common narrative, participation trophies represent rewards for mediocrity. They are a source of over-inflated ego and entitlement among millenials. I find that this narrative underestimates the flexibility of the trophy as a symbol.

As a kid, I understood that a trophy represented the concept of winning. I also knew that I did not win. And yet I got a trophy. This presents a contradiction. To make any sense of it, one of our assumptions has got to give. The obvious conclusion is that trophies do not represent winning, or at least this trophy doesn’t. Rather than promoting a sense of entitlement, participation trophies… meant nothing at all. They were neither the subject of veneration, nor did they feel particularly ironic. They were just background noise, hardly a significant part of my brief stint in soccer, much less my entire childhood.

It is interesting, though to speculate on the motivations of the people handing out the trophies. I’m guessing there’s some sort of secret history of participation trophies, in which some corporation or entrepreneur successfully sold soccer leagues and parents on the idea of buying molded plastic in bulk. Parents presumably thought the trophies would give more weight to their “everybody’s a winner” speech, which chronically failed to convince even small children. And then at some point, the trophies must have been expected as a matter of course. While the kids may not have been convinced that trophies meant winning, they were probably more convinced that not getting a trophy was definitely losing.

The funny thing is, I now believe the “everybody’s a winner” speech is mostly correct.

What does it mean to “win” in kids’ soccer? We won very few of our games, but it wasn’t precisely zero, so in a certain sense we were “winners” of at least one game. But that didn’t really feel like winning. I thought winning meant winning the entire tournament. By that standard, what fraction of players were winners? 5%? If we’re using soccer as a metaphor for later life, maybe it’s wrong to tell kids that everyone is a winner–but it seems even more incorrect to tell them that only a tiny fraction of kids are winners.  In different parts of life, there are different numbers of winners, but tournament sports are very much an outlier in just how few winners they permit.

As for myself, I think the point where I won at soccer was when I convinced my parents to let me quit an activity I didn’t enjoy.


  1. davebot says

    I remember reading some articles on participation rewards a long time ago, and, if I remember correctly, the research showed that if you teach kids that the there is merit in participating, it increases their chances of developing skill in whatever sport/activity they are participating in (they participate for the joy of the thing not the accolades of victory). Rewarding only victory teaches them that there is no merit in the activity itself if you are not winning. So the irony of not giving participation rewards and only praising victory is that it teaches kids that it’s not worth doing something if you’re not winning at it (however you measure “winning”), i.e. increasing the chance that they turn into quitters/losers.
    I mean, everyone sucks at activities when they first try them. We get better at things by, wait for it… participating.

  2. ZzzMeowmeow says

    the contents in the last 3 paragraphs-
    are you trying to explain that everyone can be a winner based on what winning means to that person?
    A relevant point I want to contribute:
    There is a difference between actually winning, and feeling like winning.
    For instance, if I was forced to compete in a piano championship, and I won, I probably would not feel like winning. This actually winning means nothing to me, since it was not my intention to participate or win.
    An opposite example, I really liked coding and joined a coding game competition, and did not get a good ranking/won. I still felt like winning, because I had a clear motivation to do so and actually participated.

  3. says

    In those paragraphs, I’m countering the argument that participation trophies teach the wrong lesson about life. People argue that participation trophies teach the wrong lesson, because in real life only winners are winners. However, if you’re in a classroom, or at a job, a significant fraction of the people there are doing satisfactory work, and only a small number are failing out. It’s not like a tournament where only 5% or so are winners.

    But I was also making a secondary point about my personal win condition, which had nothing to do with winning the tournament, but was instead about asserting my desire to quit. “Winning”, as defined within the confines of the game, isn’t really winning, because we have desires and goals outside of the game.

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