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In Defense Of Participation Trophies

March 1, 2016

They are the awards we love to hate. Participation trophies have been blamed for everything from spoiling our children and making them soft, to an increase in gang violence and lack of work ethic. A trophy should mean something, we are told. If we give everyone a trophy, then everyone feels special and as Dash, from the Incredibles  told us

When everyone is special, no one is!

I used to believe this. I even discussed the danger the dangers of participation trophies. (What My Kids Taught Me About Participation Trophies.) But, recently I started thinking about the difference between a participation trophy and a trophy for achievement. 

These are trophies for a chess tournament that my sons were in. One son got first place, the other got second place. Because of a weird scheduling issue, my two sons didn’t get a chance to play each other. So, they both finished the tournament undefeated. First and second place were determined by how well they did against common opponents. (My son who took second still feels like he could have beaten his brother.)

The point is, there can only be one champion. And there actually is only one runner up. There were a dozen kids in the tournament. So far, we are probably all in agreement that this is a good process. Some of the kids that my sons beat cried when they lost. It tugs at your heart as a parent, but we know that it is building character. So, why change it? Why even suggest that participation trophies might be acceptable. If every kid at the tournament got a trophy, then what incentive would my sons have to win? 

None. But, that’s not the point. You don’t have to choose between participation trophies or championship trophies. 

These are trophies that my sons got for playing baseball. Their team did not win there league championship. In fact, when they were playing, I’m not even sure there was a championship. It was first year “machine pitch” type baseball. I asked my son what that trophy represented.

Just having fun with the team.

And that’s the difference. It’s important to have competition. It’s critical that we teach our children that working hard, working harder than those around you means that you get the better job, higher pay, the reward for coming in first. But, there is also a place for commemorating a team effort. For rewarding people for simply being part of the team. 

Project management is the ability to get people from different teams to come together and work for a common goal. I don’t want my network engineer feeling like he has to outperform my telecom engineer. I don’t want my network upgrade project team feeling like they need to beat the project team working on installing the new phone system. 

And as those teams complete their tasks, I think it’s valuable to recognize that. These are some of my Ship -It awards. 

These awards were given to all team members after we completed a project. They are adult participation trophies. And they are critical to maintaining team morale. 

Don’t knock the partipation trophies. They are a tangible reminder of a time when kids, (or adults) were part of a team. And learning to work on a team is just as important as learning to work hard to be #1. It’s when we confuse the purpose of participation trophies with competition trophies that we send the wrong message. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2016 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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