Everybody Gets A Trophy

We were down 27 to 28 with only a few seconds left on the clock in the first game of a single elimination tournament.  It was win or go home and even though I was only coaching ten-year-old basketball, the stakes seemed incredibly high. Some of the kids on the bench were jumping up and down.  My son and the other players who would play out the remainder of the game looked simultaneously exhilarated and terrified.  A couple were already crying.  I called for a time out and rallied the team for the final seconds that would spell the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat for everyone involved.  One of the boys threw the ball into my son, who effortlessly dribbled around two defenders and into the paint.  As time ran out, he went up for what would be the final shot.  It was a beautiful moment of basketball that seemed to last for hours.  The ball floated above the outstretched arms of defenders and glided directly toward the basket.  It hit the backboard and gently bounced three times around the rim before it rolled off to the right and onto ground.  We lost.  It was a painful experience to walk those little guys back into a room at the gym to get their participation trophy.  I tried to be encouraging as I handed out the trophies, but every boy knew that it would have felt much better to have been drinking Gatorade in the gym, celebrating our win, and waiting to play our next opponent.  As my son and I drove away, he took his trophy and put it on the dashboard of my truck.  He said “Why did they give me a trophy?  I’m not even sure what it’s for.”  I took that as an opportunity for a teachable moment to talk to him about his effort and the value of competition. But looking back, I can’t help but think that I didn’t have a good answer for his question about the trophy. I’m not sure why the organizers gave trophies to all the participants, but my hunch is that they were trying to make sure that the kids who lost still felt valuable and special.  In the process, they probably did a disservice to my son and the rest of his teammates.  Here’s 3 reasons I believe my team should have left that tough loss in the tournament without a trophy and why we should all strive to ensure we are not coddling our kids.

  1. The Value of Being Uncomfortable

Losing sucks.  It doesn’t feel good and it sometimes makes kids feel the emotional sting of being uncomfortable.  Parents concerned about self-esteem are not letting their children do difficult things or experience difficult emotions, and as a result, we are developing adults who expect a lot from life but may not be willing to give much.  When kids are praised for everything and “everyone’s a winner,” it reduces their desire to put in their best effort and reduces their ability to regulate negative emotions.  Our job as parents is to instill in our children a resilience and grit that allows them to trust that they can indeed handle negative emotion and uncomfortability and use it to confront the inevitable challenges of life with confidence.  The ability to self-regulate and handle negative emotion is consistently identified as a central player in whether people succeed in business, in relationships, and in life.

The danger of refusing to allow our kids to feel the negative emotions of loss and discomfort is most obvious on our college campuses.  Now the kids who got the participation trophies are expecting perfectly “emotionally safe” environments.  Some of our colleges and universities have gone so far to protect against anything that could make anyone feel uncomfortable that that they have oppressed free speech and dialogue.  When these young people go from the safe places created for them in the educational space to the real world called the workplace, they sometimes struggle with this reality.  When someone does not meet their needs or makes them the slightest bit uncomfortable, they feel micro-aggressed or bullied.  We must allow our kids to understand that being uncomfortable is a part of life and that they can indeed learn from those experiences of loss and use them as an opportunity to grow.  We don’t win every time, but we can learn every time.

  1. Self-esteem vs. Status

As a culture we have confused self-esteem and status.  Status means we are positioned as superior or inferior to those around us.  So, if I would have coached my son to respond to his loss at the basketball tournament through the lens of status, he would have left feeling inferior to the real winners.  Status focuses on the pecking order we can create mentally in almost any social situation.  With status as our guide, we are valuable if we win and valueless if we lose.  Self-esteem is a very different concept.  Self-esteem is based on the idea that we can value ourselves based on qualities and traits that are inherent to who we are as humans.  Accordingly, self-esteem can be based on qualities such as grit, hard work, integrity, and character.  Giving my team trophies even though they lost the tournament suggests that somehow you have to walk away with the same kind of prize that the winner has, in order to feel good about your effort. Our kids don’t need that. They need to know that their best effort combined with grit, determination, and character is all they need to feel good about their effort in life.

  1. Innovation vs. Depression and Anxiety

Although parents who protect their children from experiencing negative emotion are attempting to keep their children safe, they are actually exposing their children to some unforeseen negative consequences. The exaggerated thinking that says “you shouldn’t have to handle feeling negative emotion” unintentionally creates situations where young people feel disempowered and even assume everyone has hostile intentions.  These negative patterns of thinking are habits of anxious and depressed people.  It comes as no coincidence then that there has been a rise in anxiety, depression, and suicide among our children.  The irony is thick here:  when everyone’s a winner we are creating an environment in which more children will struggle with chronic negative emotion and mental health problems.

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