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Institutionalizing Mediocrity With “Participation Trophies”

Certain traits seem characteristic of the different demographic generations of Americans. From the “Greatest Generation,” those who experienced and survived World War II, to Generations X, Y, and Z, the demographics ascending over the last few decades, certain traits seem endemic. There’s some evidence that societally, and parentally, we may be contributing to some of the more pejorative characteristics of the later generations.

James HarrisonThe less desirable traits of the later generations could well be created and perpetuated by some of our societal customs. And one prominent NFL (National Football League) player may have either intentionally, or unintentionally, identified one of them.

James Harrison is a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. A couple weeks ago, Harrison posted a picture on Instagram of two “participation” trophies his sons, (ages 8 and 6) had received. He said he was sending back the trophies until “they earn a real trophy.”

He explained, “I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy.”

James_Harrison_SonsJason Dorsey is widely recognized as an authority on Millennials and Gen Y. He’s an author and consultant with major Fortune 500 companies, and a frequent guest on numerous news programs. He identifies a few of the least desirable traits of his generation. As he explains it, “Gen Y often has a feeling of entitlement…Gen Y loves instant gratification…Gen Y is known for having big expectations but not always knowing or valuing the steps involved to reach those expectations.”

One can’t help but wonder if “participation” trophies, ribbons, accolades, ad infinitum, contribute to these deficiencies. Participation in sports or other extracurricular activities is commendable and to be encouraged. But it’s not an end in and of itself. Just showing up is not something to be rewarded. The real benefits come from expending energy, developing talents, and growing character, by striving to do one’s best.

8-velocity-most-improved-player-trophy-2049-pThe growth and maturation achieved from successful participation and involvement is what should be rewarded. It seems to me the best award that a child can earn is “Most Improved,” for it rewards those who may not have had the best raw talent, but have worked hardest to improve upon what they had. When we award children just for showing up or participating, we are in essence institutionalizing reduced expectations for their performance.

Harrison himself is a Gen X-er, born in 1978, and may have a unique perspective on this issue since he himself nearly didn’t make it in the NFL. This was in large part due to his attitude and work ethic in the league in his early years.

Teammate and fellow linebacker, James Farrior, has said that Harrison “was a knucklehead that didn’t know the plays. We’d be in practice, in training camp, and he might not know what he was doing so he’d just stop and throw his hands up and tell the coaches to get him out of there. We thought the guy was crazy.” That’s likely the reason Harrison remained on the practice team for the Steelers for two years before making it to the Sunday roster. But due to his hard work and determination, he’s a 13-year veteran with the league, and a five-time pro-bowler.

4331ee9dd38d7e3450e5176baebdc184Is this the reason so many of the later generations rack up so much debt going to college, and then end up living at home, expecting high-paying jobs to land in their laps, in their “failure to launch?” After all, they’ve been told for years how wonderful, how special, and how talented they are, whether they really provided empirical evidence of it or not. They were praised and lauded for simply showing up, whether their efforts merited accolades or not. They could well be harvesting the fruits of our misplaced “participation awards.”

Ashley Merryman, a mentor to Olympic athletes, and co-author of “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing,” has said, “The benefit of competition isn’t actually winning. The benefit is improving…I’d much rather have a 6-year-old cry because he didn’t get a medal than have a 26-year-old lose it because they realized they weren’t as special as they thought they were.”

More and more studies indicate that the most accurate predictor of success in life is “grit.” University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth has documented over a decade of data indicating that passion, perseverance, and stamina – or “grit” – can outweigh talent, IQ, and socioeconomic status in predicting success in life. And “success” includes family, professional, social, and economic attainment.

never_spanked_as_kidsAuthor Paul Tough’s book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and Hidden Power of Character,” confirms Duckworth’s conclusions. Tough writes, “What matters most in a child’s development is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence.”

And simply “showing up” does not develop those traits They are developed by hard work, resilience, perseverance, and “grit.” Precisely the kinds of things we should be rewarding. Come to think of it, they are precisely the things that life itself rewards.

Associated Press award winning columnist Richard Larsen is President of Larsen Financial, a brokerage and financial planning firm in Pocatello, Idaho and is a graduate of Idaho State University with degrees in Political Science and History and coursework completed toward a Master’s in Public Administration. He can be reached at rlarsenen@cableone.net.

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Richard Larsen

AP award winning columnist Richard Larsen is President of Larsen Financial, a brokerage and financial planning firm in Pocatello, Idaho, and is a graduate of Idaho State University with a BA in Political Science and History and former member of the Idaho State Journal Editorial Board. He can be reached at rlarsenen@cableone.net.

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One Comment

  1. My daughter explained to her boys that the ‘participation’ award was really means that they were there but had to try harder next time….of course she was raised that if you want an allowance, you did chores and earned it…..hmmm what a novel idea.

    I applauded when I heard that the father had returned the trophies….I’m sure the boys were disappointed and maybe even mad, but bet they improve next season and all the seasons thereafter.

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