While I was on the other end of the state with my U10 team trying to win a tournament trophy, the coaches in our league decided to have a very informative and spirited debate about end of season awards, participation trophies, and alternatives. As season wrap up and teams decide what to do across the country, I figured I’d pass on some of the insights and discussion.

The thread started with a coach who felt participation trophies were getting out of hand and diminished the meaning of any trophies the kids ‘earned’ by winning their division or a tournament. The coach felt there were other alternatives available:

I’m new at this coaching thing, but I’m not new at being a soccer parent, so I’m going to go ahead and pose my question to everyone from that point of view.

The question is: Do we really need to give trophies every season for participation?

I was an athlete growing up, and participated in rec, high school and collegiate sports. I wasn’t the best out there, but I won my fair share of races, through a great deal of tough training. When I won, I got ribbons, and once in a great while a medal or a letter for my jacket, or was named captain. I never received a thing just for participating in a sport, other than the satisfaction of being part of the team and the friendships and abundant good health I enjoyed as a result.

My six-year-old already has so many trophies and medals that I had to buy shelves so he could display them. One trophy is a result of a duathlon he won through hard work and training. The rest are for participation in soccer or cycling races. I don’t think he’s getting any more out of his sports experience than I did out of mine, without the trophies. By my calculation, since he started at age four, by the end of his experience with the MYSA he will have received eighteen trophies for participation, not counting the ones he will get if he plays challenge or the ones from his other sports. And I don’t think he will have learned a thing from receiving them. The arguments for trophies, which I’ve heard from parents, are the following, as best as I can gather:

  1. Johnny will be disappointed if he doesn’t get one.
  2. The other teams get trophies.
  3. Trophies help kids develop confidence.

Don’t kids develop confidence when they contribute to their team, when they make a good play, when their coach or parent praises their performance? Aren’t we breeding mediocrity in our kids by teaching them a sense of entitlement? Aren’t we doing them a great disservice by rewarding everything they do? Aren’t we belittling their truly great achievements when we reward them in the same way for the little things? And should we really give in to the pressure to do the same thing everyone else does? To me, the most important question is: What are the kids learning from this? We can’t mask the fact that they lost games. They already know that. And I think losing once in a while can be good for a kid.

My childhood experience in sports was wonderful. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And yet, I wasn’t the best, fastest kid out there. I was excited every time I trimmed my time on a race or jumped half an inch farther or made a basket or blocked a shot. I don’t want to take that away from my children.

I am very proud of our soccer team. They’ve worked hard and improved. They work better together than at the beginning of the season, their skills are improving, and although we have lots to work on, we’ve had a lot of fun. This season, my kids will get, instead of a trophy, a soccer ball. I’m going to put their names on them with the date. They can sign each other’s balls. If they want a trophy, they can put the ball on a shelf and look at it. But I hope they take it outside and kick it around. I look forward to your comments.

This was a very thoughtful email that asked some hard questions and generated a lot of insights from other coaches. The first responder agreed that trophies probably are overdone, but more controversial, felt a decision should be made league wide on what teams should do for end of season recognition:

I agree with you. I asked the parents of our team for feedback about trophies. It was a mixed response. Some said they didn’t feel it was necessary unless they won the whole season. Others said they didn’t care either way. But most did say that the kids would be expecting a trophy and would like their child to have one.

My opinion is that there should be a league-wide agreement on this matter. Maybe a trophy for the overall best team in each division and soccer medals for the rest of the teams. Maybe something different, I don’t know. I just think it should be something uniform throughout the league.

I know of siblings on different teams. What if one child receives a trophy and the other one doesn’t? Or if one child’s trophy is bigger than the sibling’s? I don’t feel it should be decided by each team individually, each season. MYSA is still a young league, so putting out some type of agreement on this matter now would be beneficial in the seasons to come. It would let parents and children know what to expect as well.

After that, all sorts of input came back including:

  • I think the main problem regarding the distribution of trophies is precedence. It can be awful difficult to explain to a kid that their not getting a trophy this season when they’ve been getting one all along.
  • I have to say that I agree only on one point, and that is there should be uniformity. However, when you are dealing with age ranges from four year olds up to teenagers, there can not be one standard. It would make no sense whatsoever to give out trophies to the ‘overall best team’ for U5 and U6. I gave out trophies to my U5 team just last week, and frankly, nothing in their faces led me to feel that I was ‘breeding mediocrity.’ Instead, I felt that I was offering encouragement and reward for trying hard and learning something new, and I received a very positive response from all of the children and parents involved. Reward based on merit is perfectly legitimate for older players. As a teenage soccer player, we all lettered in our sport and were recognized at the sports banquet. Additional awards were given out for MVP, best sportsmanship, most goals, most improved, etc. and provided an award based on achievement, and encouraged others to work harder next season. As teenagers, this is an appropriate way of handling this issue. Are we really saying this is the way we would like to deal with four, five and six year olds? That is too tough a lesson even for a seven or eight year old in my opinion. As a coach, I have no intention of sending young, beginning soccer players home at the end of the season with a negative experience, and I disagree totally with the idea of presenting trophies only to the best overall team in the younger divisions.
  • Agreed! We actually made the decision year before last that we would not do trophies at the end of every season. When I was growing up, you received a trophy when you won the county, league or whatever not just because you played. I am not a fan of “participation” trophies for U8 and above. (We do them for the U5 kids though since it is a new thing and the fact that they actually made it all season is often amazing!). We all have plenty and I think it takes away from the true meaning of earning that “trophy” for victory later in their athletic life. The main goal of the season is to learn the game and develop skills to play the game, not to earn a $5 trophy. We still do an end of season “party” and verbally acknowledge individual improvements and accomplishments at each season. Then we do something to give at the end of the Spring season for the year. Our parents are all fine with that (they are paying for it anyway so it saves them!). A ball is a terrific idea!
  • The true meaning of earning a trophy for a real victory would become watered down because there is no distinction in winning and losing every game in the season. However, in similar fashion as you, I have handed out a certificate with the individual accomplishments so that the kids would be proud of what they had accomplished during the season.
  • I think it is a great idea to give a ball out during the fall and do trophies in the Spring. Being a sponsor and a coach, it simplifies things and giving out so many trophies does become meaningless after a while. Tournament Champions or Regular Season Champion trophies are one thing, but participation trophies are getting to be too much (my opinion). Keeping this short, Spring trophies is a great idea and I like the ball at the end of the fall season. We should be able to get a great bulk discount if the league orders them.

I, of course, had to put in my own two cents:

I think the younger kids do enjoy getting a participation trophy. Are they ‘meaningless’ in the grand scheme of things. Sure. Are they meaningless to the kids? I don’t think so – they love them. Once they get older, more and more teams stop handing them out around the U10/U12 level, though I’ve seen teams do the trophies up through U12.

In the end, I think it really comes down to what your parents want. If the kids are really looking forward to them, it’s probably worth the $5 to get them one.

The ball idea is an excellent one. Personally I give out balls when my kids move up in the Spring, especially from U8 to U10. I give them a size 4 ball letting them know they’re moving into a different level of soccer played with a bigger ball, more kids, etc. But the idea of giving one in the Fall is also neat since it’ll be something they can use during the off season. The flip side being that some of us can’t walk 10 feet without tripping over a soccer ball!

T-Shirts are another cool idea. You can often get inexpensive one color T-Shirts for $7-$10. If you know someone with an artistic flair, have them make up a design with the team name, inspirational phrase, or whatever and hand those out. The kids will enjoy wearing them with pride and by the time they’ve moved on to a new team and the T-Shirt isn’t such a big deal anymore – it’s worn out and disappears 🙂 Sponsors might also be more willing to chip in for the ‘end of season award’ if it had their logo/name on part of it. Just a thought.

There are tons of promotional items you could use for this in place of trophies. The drawstring bags are becoming a very big deal. We’ve gotten ones embroidered with the MYSA logo for less than $10. Again, like soccer balls, these bags seem to reproduce on their own so you can have too much of a good thing.

Printable certificates are always fun, even if they aren’t the only thing given out. If you’re creative, you can use them to give everyone one, but for different things (Fastest kick, most improved, best team spirit, etc, etc)

I don’t think there is any one best answer here. In the end, you as a coach need to figure out what your kids and parents would like. If they like trophies, then trophies it is. If not – something else can easily be found.

This seemed to spur other coaches to speak up who felt participation trophies, or at least medals, weren’t so bad for the younger kids and also brought out a few other ideas:

  • I don’t agree with making this a league standard. I also don’t agree with the “striving for mediocrity” statement. Although I do not want to accumulate 12 trophies over the next 6 years, I also don’t think that my child is going to suffer any serious psychological trauma for receiving his first trophy for finishing his first ever soccer season. He carried that $5 trophy to school AND to his grandmother’s house. Harm done is what? Having said that, I DO agree that once the kids get to an age (U8?) that they can understand why they are NOT getting a participation trophy, that in all fairness, they can cease and only award trophies to winning seasons. I don’t think we’re going to get a unanimous decision on this but I think that there are lots of options (the ball is a great idea!) that each team can explore to recognize the kids and make them feel special.
  • I agree and like the idea of U8 and above receiving trophies for being champions in their respective divisions, not just everyone getting a trophy (gets to be a little too much). Since stats are being kept, possibly giving a “most goals scored” during a season “type” trophy to some kids, but that at most??? But I do like giving the U5/U6 kids something for being out there. We started out with giving the kids trophies, but have move to just giving them medals. It seems to work well and so I thought I would pass it along.
  • I was reading a lot about the trophy issue and I agree on everyone’s perspective. I’m in my mid 30’s and coaching soccer for the first time. Growing up I played baseball and football when in High School, I played the two same sports but added wrestling to the resume. During the summer time while attending college, I played in a lot of softball tournaments and did the state games thing. I thought trophies were the best thing, would be so excited seeing these huge trophies, waiting for me to take them home. well now I have daughters and at one time I was very proud of all my trophies. I must have had over a hundred combined medals ribbons and trophies, when my daughters received their first PARTICIPATION trophies, they asked “where do we put ours Dad”? well the answer was simple, it’s their time to be proud of what they did and accomplished, they are both teenagers now and yes, they have just about a hundred combined and they’re not even done with high school. my point is…Give the kids the trophies, give them the medals, to see their faces when they bring that home and set it on their shelf is an awesome feeling, they’re gonna leave soon and have kids of their own, cherish the moment, buy the shelves, and be just as proud, because those EARNED trophies, are just around the corner.
  • Each team needs to decide what will work best for the dynamic of their specific situation. Leave the decision up to the parents of the players and their coaches. Be it a ball, shirt, trophy, medal, certificate, or party…no one decision we could make as a league would cover all teams. There are too many variables. There are some fairly new teams even up in U10, who have kids who’ve never played a sport before. There are also teams with special needs kids, who don’t understand not getting a trophy. A big thing our U10 team and our U8 team focus on, is how well each player plays…not just IF our team wins. Lets continue to let each team decide how to celebrate their players…perhaps giving the parents some of these other wonderful options to consider at the end of the season.
  • Just a thought for another option. Last season we took 3-ring binders, sheet protectors, and construction paper and put together scrap/yearbooks for our players. We are lucky, in that my father-in-law does photography as a hobby, so he takes some good action shots each season. We picked out action shots for each individual player along with a team photo, a certificate for individual participation that we made on our computer at no cost, and a blank page for team signatures or notes, put them all in protectors, and decorated with soccer stickers. Each player’s name was put on the outside of the book. Long story short, the kids and parents loved them just as much as they did trophies in the past. The added bonus was that since they were in binders, the kids can add to them every season as we give them more photos. It’s a great way to save money,space, and memories and add a personal touch from the coaches. Not to mention letting the players see how they grow each season. Just wanted to offer that, good ideas on both sides of the issue, the most important thing is that the kids walk away with a positive experience, no matter how you decide to recognize them.

I thought this was an excellent discussion with a lot of interesting ideas and opinions. The complete thread can be found in our coaches archives if you are interested. Look for the subject ‘Trophies’.

I’d be curious to hear what other teams do besides trophies, both from the perspective of diminishing the value of earned trophies as well as interesting and unique ideas for recognizing player achievement.