Should Every Kid Get a Sports “Participation” Ribbon?

One complaint I regularly hear these days is that we have become too soft and giving when it comes to rewarding kids for simply “being on the team” when it comes to youth sports.  Rather than have to earn awards through athletic accomplishments, some folks feel we have become too giving about rewarding kids for simply putting on a uniform and being on the team.  I have even heard this being called the “everybody gets an award” generation of youth sports!

The positives of reinforcing all kids…
Delving deeper, there are a couple schools of thought to consider as they apply to the question of “everybody being a winner in youth sports.”  First, using the most basic behavioral psychology models, sport psychologists would agree that shaping behaviors through positive reinforcement “works” in the sense that it usually increases motivation, perseverance, and goal compliance.  This does not mean that giving every young athlete a participation ribbon will turn him or her into a future All-Star, but it does suggest that positive reinforcement is generally a good thing and usually helps with self-esteem and self-confidence.  When kids feel good about themselves, they are more likely to try harder, and for some that extra effort might make the difference between a late-bloomer athlete and one that might have quit his career much sooner if he had not been recognized in some small way.

The negatives of reinforcing all kids…
The flip-side to easy rewards may be that it doesn’t raise the bar high enough for kids to continue to train hard and improve their mental toughness and athletic skills — after all, everybody gets a trophy for simply signing up for the team, right?

A second concern about rewarding everyone is that it could take away from the kids who actually earn their awards through on-field accomplishments — might they become upset that their hard work and efforts were recognized in the same way as other kids who hardly even played?

The key, it seems, is for coaches and sports league operators to find a middle ground and create both ways to recognize kids who participate on the team (but maybe not play much, or at all), as well as create more meaningful rewards for those athletes who truly accomplish great things on the field.  Using this approach, all kids are recognized, but some are provided more meaningful rewards because they have accomplished more meaningful things on the field.

What do you think about this issue?  Have we gone overboard as a society by rewarding every young athlete for simply putting on a sports uniform, or does it make sense to reinforce sport participation — even for the kids who never see the field?

Dr. Chris Stankovich is a national expert in the field of sport & performance psychology and has assisted thousands of athletes reach their full athletic potential. He is the Founder of Advanced Human Performance Systems, and is known as “The Sports Doc” for his weekly segment on Ohio News Network (ONN). Please visit www.drstankovich.com for exciting, easy-to-understand Peak Performance videos, audios, assessments, and feature articles.

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4 Responses

  1. read this article which nails it!!! No, we should not give a trophy to everyone. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/25/opinion/losing-is-good-for-you.html?_r=0

  2. Why are on the field athletic accomplishments the measuring stick for rewards? When that is what we measure, then we must fail terribly as parents and coaches because so few kids, no matter how hard they (or we) try, will be ever be in the that group of super successful players . And if we give trophies to every kid, who’s fault it is it if the kid did nothing but show up? Isn’t your program about more than that? How much as coaches & parents have we done to establish accomplishments that are important regardless if they ultimately lead to scoreboard success? What are youth sports really about? I find it hard to believe that a $3 medal or trophy is creating a class of kids who no longer understand that everyone one cheers for the goal scorer. Game time is show time – it’s entertainment but extremely rarely is it a good measure of who put the work in.

  3. As Regional Commissioner for a mid-sized youth soccer program, I have a couple concerns about this issue.

    First, these are kids. Why wouldn’t we want to positively reinforce their participation in any physical activity? Given our current concerns about childhood obesity and the lack of physical education in our schools, kids need something to reinforce their continued athletic activities as they grow into adults. The ribbon or trophy, while trivial to some, is simply a reminder of a time when the kids, hopefully, had fun making new friends and learning new skills in whatever sport they were doing. If that helps them stay active through their teen years and into adulthood, it’s a small price to pay for huge benefits.

    Second, these are kids. Why would they not be allowed to play? If I’ve paid my registration fees, been placed on a team, and attended training, I should be allowed an equal opportunity to play in competition. Kids, and adults, won’t get the full benefit of learning until they apply it in a real setting – that’s the game! To say only the best on the team get to play is contrary to what a team is all about. A team is a group of individuals working together toward a common goal. Everyone needs to play. As adults, we get too wrapped up in winning and don’t focus on what’s truly important – playing. Just playing.

    So back to the original question, should every kid get a participation ribbon? YES!!!

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