Quit Griping that “Everybody Gets a Trophy”

I’m tired of hearing about the “Everybody Gets a Trophy” generation. When I recently heard someone use that phrase again, I wondered, was it just my imagination, or were people constantly using that cliché to describe today’s generation in their teens and twenties?

I Googled “everybody gets a trophy” and came up with nearly a million articles, blogs, news stories and other items that use the phrase, so I guess I’m not imagining it. I read through some of the endless news commentaries and blog posts about this “syndrome,” as some of them call it, and I ended up even less convinced about it than I was before.

The basic concept is this: These young people are the spoiled products of a self-esteem culture in which they (or at least their parents) are afraid of failure. In order to prevent these delicate egos from facing any hint of mediocrity or failure, their parents put them on soccer teams and baseball teams and other activities in which everybody gets a trophy regardless of any lack of talent, achievement, or actual victory over the other team.

Because of this, the kids grow up thinking they’re far more talented than they really are, and they expect unqualified approval in every area, from academics to sports to the world of employment. Coddled and arrogant, they fail to learn how tough life really is. Their weakness of character erodes our entire culture, but someday they’re in for a rude awakening.

What utter nonsense.

As a college professor, I have spent years interacting with people in this generation. As a parent of teenagers who play sports, I have spent years watching what happens with the trophies. I simply don’t buy the usual “everybody gets a trophy” analysis.

Let’s start with the trophies themselves. My son and daughter have played on many teams in several different leagues over the years. They have played competitive softball, baseball, basketball, football, soccer, and probably a few other sports I’m forgetting. They do get trophies in most of those, or medals, which amount to the same thing. On most of the teams it is true that everybody gets one of these, win or lose. The trophy or medal is bigger or better if the team wins the championship, but everybody gets something regardless of the outcome.

The thing is, kids are smart about these things. I have never seen my kids or any of the other athletes interpret these medals or trophies as signs that they are all winners or that the loss of a game or championship is somehow not a failure. They understand failure. They know who the good players are and who the bad players are. If they’re not as good as the other athletes, it certainly doesn’t take the withholding of a trophy to make that clear to them. They know. Their teammates will make it clear to them in many ways, and so will the coaches, and so will the spectators. It’s absurd to think that a trophy or lack of a trophy changes that.

What, then, is the purpose of giving a medal or trophy to everyone? My own kids have their medals hanging in their rooms and the trophies are displayed on shelves around the house. These are not signs of egotistical triumph. They are mementoes of being on the team. My daughter also has her softball caps from her various softball teams displayed on the wall on one side of her room. They’re a way of remembering the experience.

I once worked at a magazine devoted to the sport of trapshooting. At a national tournament, I worked at the booth where we gave out metal pins that commemorated the event. Most tournaments gave out such pins, and competitors would attach those to their caps or shooting jackets as a way of showing how many tournaments they competed in. They were eager to get those pins, and when we ran out of them one day, they were angry until we got some more. They were meaningful, but they did not signify success. They were simply a souvenir. That’s the way it is with the trophies.

The men and women who coached my kids were certainly not interested only in the athletes’ self-esteem. They worked them hard. They taught them. They punished them. They encouraged them. They wanted them to win. My kids have plenty of trophies, but they have also tasted plenty of failure.

Regardless of what generation we’re in, life offers abundant lessons on how to handle failure. I wouldn’t be too worried about a few extra trophies being handed out.

11 thoughts on “Quit Griping that “Everybody Gets a Trophy”

  1. Trophies are not the problem. Not only are trophies souvenirs and mementos, but they are also rewards for the aspects of competition that we value other than winning: hard work, teamwork, perseverance, and sportsmanship. Trophies champion the children who have the courage and discipline to participate in a sport (or other activity) and to give their best towards their goal. If we only reward the winners, we are devaluing the importance of everything else. Soon we will find our children cheating and playing dirty in order to win because we have told them that winning is the only thing that matters.

    The problem arises when we discount the value of winning altogether. It is important to teach our children to live up to their highest potential and strive to be the best. If we fail to do so, we will find ourselves in a world of mediocrity. We can hand out trophies or medals to everyone and still see that our children understand the difference between winning and losing, but this can only be achieved if we keep score. In society’s attempt to balance out the undue pressures put on children, we have gone to the other extreme. Not only are we giving every child a trophy, but we are also abandoning scorekeeping altogether! This is where the true problem lies. This is when we see children who cannot handle failure and rejection. This is where we see children who do not know how to lose gracefully.

    But we have to find a balance. On the opposite extreme of not keeping score, I have seen parents, teachers, and coaches who value winning alone. Nothing less than perfect is acceptable. Nothing less than the best is worthy. Children crack under such pressure, and when they score a 2390 on their SATs instead of a 2400, they spin into crisis. But maybe they don’t crack. Instead, they cheat and suffer the guilt and consequences that accompany that decision. Obviously, these are extremes, but the point is, there has to be a balance. Give them the trophies because trophies are not sufficient to create or destroy the attitudes and values of children. That is the work of the parents, teachers, and coaches who plant the seeds of either self-worth or self-loathing, hard work or laziness, and winning humbly or losing sorely.

  2. I don’t believe that the trophies make the kids think that they can’t fail at life. I do believe that most kids have been in a situation where they failed, but they get back up and try again.

    There were other things in my 12 years of playing softball that showed me that everything is just politics. Some of these politics made it seem that some kids were better than they actually were and in a sense they weren’t failures at softball. Ever year I played all stars for softball, the coaches’ daughters automatically were put on the team. The coaches were excellent. Their daughters, not so much. This took away two spots that should have been given to a better player. In a sense this made the other players feel like they failed because they weren’t chosen for the all star team, but never the coaches’ daughters who shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

    Another thing was the choosing of MVP. I know that your children knew who the best players on their teams were, but this never happened on my teams. The coaches’ daughters always got picked even though there were other girls that could run circles around them and put in more time than they did. Again this showed that they couldn’t fail, but they should have.

    I have no problem giving trophies to every kid, but some of the bias that goes into it makes kids feel like they can’t fail and I think every kid needs to know that they can and will fail sometimes. Life isn’t always fair and kids should know that at an early age.

  3. Personally, I think the extra trophies are kind of nice. I mean, for me, I did softball in 4th grade and was ABSOLUTELY terrible. I worked so hard to keep up with everyone on the team to no avail, and made little friends. The “medals” at the end were kind of a nice way of saying “good job for trying, kid” regardless of my actual performance. I didn’t exactly feel like a winner but it was nice to be recognized for the effort, and i think giving the bigger medals helps those who performed better their deserved appreciation. So, all in all, I just think its a nice way of reaching out to everyone so as not to completely discourage those who are terrible but tried anyways. I’m always a fan of the personal best!

  4. This is a very well thought out argument against this all too common complaint. I can attest to the truth of your analysis– as a participator in Little League baseball and other “Pee Wee” sports, I don’t think that I ever thought of myself as better than I actually was. As bad as it sounds, I knew the good kids, and I knew the kids I was better than. I think that this aspect of competition is not generational, it’s human. Trophy or no trophy, people will always be tangibly good or tangibly bad. To even imply in the first place that a physical memento gives people false confidence or entitlement is ridiculous because even the people that win “justified” trophy’s don’t draw their self esteem from them. I’m sure that there isn’t gold medal Olympian sprinter that has ever said, “man I’m glad I got this medal, because without it I couldn’t prove to people that I can run fast.” The Olympic gold medal, just like the plastic statue that you get handed to you at the end of they year by your Little League Coach, is just a commemoration. The pride and entitlement don’t come from it, they come from the knowledge that you did something worth being proud of.

  5. I found this blog entry to be one that sparked my interest. I certainly would agree that the “Everybody Gets a Trophy” generation is a fallacy. To attribute something so trivial as trophy to the demise of our present day culture is absurd. Growing up I was involved in competitive dance and cheerleading, where trophies and awards were obviously involved. I can account many times where I received ribbons or medals just for the sake of participating. I never interpreted this as an issue of equality amongst us all. It was vividly clear to me when I didn’t perform to my fullest potential or when someone was just inherently better than I was.

    Just because I received a token of remembrance from an event does not mean I am automatically inept to deal with failure. If anything I believe these medals or ribbons helped me become better at dealing with failure. They reminded me that there was room for improvement, which is one of the many beauties of life. The ideology behind the “Everybody Gets a Trophy” generation makes things out to be too black and white. There can be a harmonious relationship between awareness of failure and self worth. They do not have to be conflicting.

  6. I think that this is a pretty accurate representation of our generations, or at least in my high school. A lot of kids felt entitled and that everything should be handed to them. Especially in the public school system, kids are taught that they aren’t failures. It’s always someone else’s fault that they didn’t succeed. Trophies are an extension of this. People are so concerned with their kids self-esteem that instead of teaching them how to accept failure as a normal part of life, they hand them a consolation prize to tell them that they didn’t really fail. Raising kids this way has dramatically shown in my peers over the years. They blame their failures on others and don’t count them as failing at all. They’re always expecting to be a handed a trophy for “trying” instead of succeeding.

  7. I like how you compared kid sports to the adult competition where little pins were souvenirs to remember that special day. However, I think trophies are a different matter because they are not called “souvenirs” and are usually big and gaudy. It would be different if kids received little pins to remember the year and team they played on, but as I remember from my childhood, every sports team regardless of wins or skill all received the same sized trophy. Hurt egos aside, I think it’s best to reward that which merits it. I don’t want my kids growing up in a world where they expect a reward for effort or expect compensation because they did what they were supposed to do. Luke 17.10 makes a good point, saying that Christians ought to not expect thanks or a reward for simply doing what they are called to do. And I worry that we nowadays mainly act, speak, or help when we see some sort of reward or gratitude involved. Back to the point, I think trophies, regardless of how small, are considered to be something one earns. You don’t necessarily earn a souvenir, but you have to earn a trophy. Giving out trophies just defeats the point and lessens their worth for people who actually deserve them.

  8. One of my history professors once said “The world needs better losers.” He definitely buys into the idea of our generation having the “everyone gets a trophy” syndrome. I have even bought into that idea. So, I really enjoyed reading this because it challenged my own thoughts.

    I really appreciate that you pointed out “They know.” Kids know who is the better player and they are quite aware of their own capabilities in sports – just as Jeremy pointed out. I do not think that the trophies can make kids think that they are all equally talented in the sport. I agree that the trophies are supposed to be more of a souvenir to validate the child’s experience in the sport.

    In response to this paragraph:
    “Because of this, the kids grow up thinking they’re far more talented than they really are, and they expect unqualified approval in every area, from academics to sports to the world of employment. Coddled and arrogant, they fail to learn how tough life really is. Their weakness of character erodes our entire culture, but someday they’re in for a rude awakening.”

    I think the real culprit of this “self-esteem” issue is moral relativism. People are permitted to have the final say on what is right and what is wrong – no one is allowed to challenge that. So, our own conscious is deified. We deify ourselves because we make ourselves the standard to which every thing that is “good” must be held. It is so difficult to tell people that they are wrong or to rebuke and hold accountable. The great sin of pride thrives in a culture that lives under the dictatorship of Moral Relativism. So, in a sense, we do need better losers – people who are better at realizing they can make mistakes; people who are willing to learn from their mistakes. However, getting rid of the practice of giving every participant a trophy is not the cause or cure.

  9. Hello Professor! This is a very interest point you have brought up. And I think the perspective that receiving a physical trophy hinders the current young generation from recognizing failure is actually an ignorant statement from those who do not interact with them. I am currently twenty-one, and although I appreciate receiving praise or a trophy for the things that I achieve, it doesn’t boost my sense of accomplishment. For example, from the age of 6 to the age of fifteen, I was involved in martial arts where I attended numerous competitive tournaments. Everyone would receive a trophy, regardless if they placed 1st or last. I once received 2nd place in a high division and although I was very happy, all I could think about was how I could improve in my technique. Even if I received 1st place and received a large trophy, I would be very proud of myself but I always have the mentality of, “how can I make myself do better?” When I look at my trophies I am reminded of the hard work I put into practicing my martial arts. I know when I’ve failed because I know that I didn’t practice as I should have. I know it within my heart, when I get in front of the judges when I perform, and when I receive a trophy of eighth place.

    To say that receiving a trophy hinders the younger generation because it covers up the fact that they failed at something is just nonsense. When my younger sister shows me the trophies she received during a piano recital, she doesn’t say, “Look! Remember when I beat everyone and got first place?” She says, “Look! Remember when I played that song in front of everyone?” What she remembers is how hard she practiced for that moment, how it felt to play in front of dozens of parents, and how happy she was that she was able to overcome her anxiety of performing in front of everyone EVEN IF she made a mistake during her performance. She recognizes it, and uses that mistake to perform better in the future.

    I feel that the current young generation is definitely pressured when it comes to succeeding. But this does not mean that they do not recognize failure. Instead, I see them embracing their failure in order to better themselves for the future.

  10. As someone who always tried to be on top, I have learned that trying to be the best is very oppressive. Perfectionism is a lie out of the mouth of the Devil. Strong words? Maybe. But I now embrace the fact that I am an average person, a student who is now taking a backseat to the human experience. I love being average. I was never meant to be God, nor do I want to be. Climbing corporate ladders, whether in the classroom, sports field, or an actual corporation, is a form of hell on earth. I like where I am at!

  11. Giving everyone trophies alleviates an aspect of extrinsic motivation from sports among young athletes. The value of sports is to teach hard work and perseverance along with a passion for the sport. When everyone gets a trophy the motivation each athlete attains primarily come from an internal drive to do good for the sake of competition. The athlete does not fixate on a trophy as validation for hard work, but rather the knowledge that they can over come their competition.

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