The Real Solution of the Participation Trophy Debate: Guest Post

European-looking boy of ten years in glasses award, smile, cup on a gray background

Elliot Waksman specializes in sports psychology with kids and teens and offers this great guest post with advice about how to help your child be successful in sports (or anything for that matter) regardless of whether a trophy is involved. 

Detested by some, celebrated by others, participation trophies have become a hot topic.  Some parents argue that providing every player a trophy devalues the meaning.  Others claim first through last, all participants are deserving of trophies.  Looking at the psychology behind the issue reveals the real solution: Coaches and parents should help student-athletes build long-lasting, intrinsic motivation by verbally praising effort. 

Why praise effort?

When coaches and parents verbally praise the process of athletics such as focus, effort, persistence, and overcoming of obstacles, student-athletes learn and can reproduce these skills on and off the field.  These skills lead to success in the long run.

Pitfalls of participation trophies

Kids often see through the cloak of participation trophies, interpreting them as meaningless gestures just for showing up.  They know it is not the same as winning.  Additionally, long-term success comes from intrinsic motivation. Great athletes run on intrinsic motivation from an early age rather than for extrinsic prizes. To reach the top, athletes need to have enormous drive and indestructible faith in their own talent years before they know what the tangible rewards for it will be.  The love of the game quickly outweighs participation trophies on the road to excellence.

How to build long lasting motivation

Recognize when your child is taking on hard tasks – those are the specific moments to praise effort.  In athletics as in life, it is about the process of growth.  Help the student-athlete think in terms of, “if I take on hard things and stick to them, I am going to grow.”

OK, now what?

This season, leave the participation trophies for the playgroups and make an effort to set your child up for long-term success by verbally praising effort.  And if you are really shooting for the A+ in sport parenting, check out the three healthiest statements moms and dads can make after the game based on psychological research, and add Waksman’s Sport Psychology Workbook to your child’s pre-game routine!

Elliott Waksman earned his MA in Sport Psychology and maintains a private practice in southwest Portland working with student-athletes on the mental game of sport.