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The Exquisite Shame of the Participation Trophy

Critics say it gives kids a false sense of achievement. But kids aren’t idiots.

Minor Leagues is Slate’s pop-up blog about kids’ sports.

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There was a time when I loved my trophies. I was a hopeless athlete, the kid who did cartwheels in right field and who ran away from the soccer ball, even though my father offered me 10 cents for every time my foot came in contact with it. (He also offered $10 if I scored a goal, but he might as well have offered $10,000; we both knew there was zero chance he’d have to pay up.) For me, the highlight of every season was the final day, the party where I got pizza and a participation trophy. I lined those shiny objects up on a shelf and admired myself for having earned them.

And then I reached the ripe old age of 7 or so and realized: Participation trophies are for losers.

I wish I could recall that moment of epiphany. Maybe it happened at one of those end-of-season banquets, as I saw other children walk out bearing taller trophies engraved with something specific. Maybe the awareness hit me in the face when I was looking at the trophy collection of my older brother, an actually talented athlete. However it happened, once the thought occurred to me, I could never shake it. Every time I received a new squat hunk of plastic, my self-esteem—that precious thing the participation trophy was meant to build—collapsed just a tiny bit more.

The statues served as constant reminders that my lack of hustle and hand-eye coordination made me a disappointment: to my competitive father, to the coaches who sighed at me, to the teammates who glared when I missed a ball that had been kicked or hit right to me. “Way to be afraid of the ba-all!” the trophies seemed to taunt me in high-pitched unison. When my grandparents came into my room and ooohed at my shelf of trophies, shame burned inside of me: They mean nothing, except for the fact that I’m pathetic. (Somehow, even though I knew that participation trophies were a joke, I assumed my loving grandparents were under the impression that I was sporty. It didn’t occur to me that they, you know, had eyes.)

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When I was finally allowed to quit team sports at 11, it was a massive relief. I threw out the trophies and built my room around things I was good at, like school and being a fan of terrible music. But the specter of those participation trophies loomed large at times—particularly during gym class, when, at least in my perception, my sporty peers would sigh in annoyance with me as I screwed up at touch football, relay races, pickleball. I had convinced myself that I hated all flavors of physical activity. It wasn’t until adulthood that I realized that there are kinds of noncompetitive movement and exercise I genuinely enjoy, even if I’m not particularly good at them, like yoga, Zumba, and riding a bike.

These days, participation trophies are the emblem of my allegedly entitled generation. Every time the point comes up for debate, though, the argument circles around the assumption that these trophies give kids a false sense of achievement. How are we going to integrate these brats into the workforce, writers fume, when they think they deserve a trophy just for showing up? In response, I want to scream, Kids aren’t idiots! Once the scales fell from my eyes, I knew I didn’t deserve that trophy, and so did everyone else. Participation trophies were worse than no recognition—they were a sop, an insulting suggestion that a trinket could trick you into feeling like you accomplished something. Like distraction as a parenting method, it may work for the youngest of children, but eventually they wise up. Maybe we should give kids awards when they reach that milestone.