Participation Trophies—Do They Boost Morale?

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Mention the words “participation trophies,” and you will probably hear strongly worded opinions on both sides of the coin. These awards are given to non-ranking team members or those who did not place first, second or third in a competition or sport. So what’s the big deal in handing out participation trophies to kids, teens or adults? Are these awards silly, or do they boost morale? The experts weigh in.

There’s A History Behind Them

If you think that passing out participation trophies is a modern concept, you would be wrong. In fact, these awards have been around for several decades now. Research shows that participation trophies became popular after World War I, and local newspaper articles often mentioned the awards.

For instance, participation trophies were given to college student organizations on campuses for years. In 1924, the University of Minnesota received a “30-inch sterling participation trophy” for attaining the highest number of participation points for intramural sports.

Participation trophies were also awarded on military bases after World War II, and the tradition continued throughout society.

Behavioral Experts Have An Opinion

Some psychologists believe that participation trophies can actually have a positive impact on individuals of all ages who get them. Whether they are recipients working in an office, older students attending school or kids playing youth sports, being awarded custom plaques can be excellent for morale. Making the trophies personal, such as engraving them with their achievement, can help every participant feel special.

Such recognition awards shows the practice and sacrifices members went through to finish something they set out to do. The trophy helps one remember the moment as a valuable keepsake.

Another plus in giving out participation trophies is in honoring the team over the winning mentality. In other words, whether it’s a sport or a competition of some kind, working together on a team is in itself worthy of celebration. It’s not always about the win but about the dedication, determination and cooperation done as a team or group that matters.

Young children, especially, can learn important life lessons about hard work and commitment when they are rewarded for these admirable traits. It increases their self-esteem and boosts their growing confidence.

If adults just focus on winning in the workforce, that can be detrimental in the office. Behavioral specialists say that this can produce added stress and can also result in a less productive environment. Not every detail has to come down to winning or placing first.

This NBA Star Understood Their Value

A lot of folks in the world of sports have certainly had differing opinions about the worth of handing out participation trophies. In the 1990s, these awards were being given to many kid athletes for participating in youth sports, and one Texan newspaper columnist from El Paso had had enough, saying that participation trophies were responsible for “giving our children a false sense of accomplishment.”

The late NBA star Kobe Bryant, who had played his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, had a positive view of these trophies. His daughters were going to be handed fourth-place trophies and didn’t want them, but Bryant told them it was important to celebrate the ceremony. He explained in a 2017 interview that being handed a participation trophy is a starting point for a kid. It is about encouragement and that if one tries their hardest and competes, further rewards will be there down the road waiting for them.

Bryant added there’s fun inside the process of losing.

Not every professional athlete would agree with the late Kobe Bryant, however. Former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison and current analyst on Fox Sports1 says he took his kids’ participation trophies away. Harrison explained that he wanted to teach his two sons that they aren’t entitled to something just because they tried their best.

From athletes to coaches to sports writers and sports viewers and to those in offices and across college campuses, everyone seems to have strong opinions about handing out custom plaques in participation trophies. Behavioral experts see the value in these awards and the amazing teachable moments that can also come from them.