Industry Insights

NextUp 2023

Why the Participation Trophy is so Important in Youth Sports Today

By Melissa Wickes
November 13, 2023
4 min

When I was in the seventh grade, I was cut from the middle school basketball team. I ran into the girls locker room and yanked my jacket out of my locker through misty eyes and flushed cheeks. I was mortified and I couldn’t get out of that building fast enough.

When I got home, my parents consoled me with words of encouragement and Milky Ways. My dad had been my only basketball coach up until that point, and he was sure the coach knew nothing about the game anyway. 

At that point, I was convinced my days of playing basketball, or sports at all, were over. I was so discouraged by being told I wasn’t good enough by that one coach that I didn’t want to try again. As a result, I never went out for the eighth grade team, but by the time summer rolled around, I missed the game and my family saw an opportunity for me to try again in a new environment. So I went to basketball camp at a different school. 

I was not the best at camp by a long shot, but my coach didn’t care. He put the same time, effort, attention, and positivity into me that he did to the girl who would go on to play college hoops. He gave me my confidence back just by acknowledging the effort it took to show up. He made me want to be better, and as a result I got better. The following school year, I played Junior Varsity and eventually became co-captain of the team—not because I was the best player on the team, but for my positivity, sportsmanship, and leadership. (The Junior High version of the “Participation Trophy,” if you will.) 

When I look back on my youth sports career, I don’t see MVP awards, championships, scholarships, or even an exorbitant amount of playing time. However, I do see a lot of laughs, the Coaches Award, happy memories, hard work, sweat, tears, hustle, and close connections with my team and coaches. Being acknowledged for showing up and working hard, despite not being the best, was enough to keep me on the court and continue to expose myself to the unmatched lessons youth sports teach us—especially young girls. 

What is a Participation Trophy?

When you picture a participation trophy, you probably see a small, plastic award with a figurine playing the sport in question—and you wouldn’t be wrong in doing so. However, participation “trophies” can take shape in more ways than one. In my case, a participation trophy was becoming co-captain of my JV basketball team.

Ashlie Rowley, Founder/ President of the Colorado Softball Academy Foundation and dedicated softball coach, shared during a panel at NextUp 2023 that she starts doing positive affirmations with her athletes as young as four years old. She teaches them to say things like I am strong, I am beautiful, I can do this to get them to buy into their own success. In a way, this is also a manifestation of a participation trophy. Any way you are reminding your youth athletes that half the battle is showing up, and that you’re proud of them for doing so, is a “participation trophy.”

You can listen to more of Ashlie’s speech on the NextUp 2023 Content Hub. 

The counter-argument to the participation trophy is that it is just coddling kids and eliminates competition from the equation—but that’s not true. Here are a few reasons participation trophies are so important, especially today.

Boosts Self-Esteem

Chances are in your adult life, you’ve tried something new that you weren’t great at. Maybe it’s a spin class or horseback riding on a family vacation. Admit it, it feels good when the spin instructor calls your name and says you’re doing a great job into the microphone. Even if you’re not doing a great job, the encouragement keeps you coming back—the participation trophy has the potential to have the same effect on kids. That’s why fitness studios send emails congratulating you on 5 classes done.

Participation trophies acknowledge and celebrate what it takes to show up and commit, which boosts a child’s self-esteem and sense of accomplishment, even if they didn’t win the competition. 

Encourages Continued Participation

Using myself as an example, participation trophies keep kids engaged in sports and activities through positive reinforcement. It allows kids to strive for improvement. 

Recognizes Different Skill Sets and Ability

Kids often enter youth sports at a very young age, and their skills are usually not yet defined at that age. Participation trophies recognize the variety in kids’ skill sets—which can include standard “athletic” skills like muscle strength, speed, and hand-eye coordination, but also executive function, language, and social skills. 

Fosters a Positive Learning Environment

Because participation trophies place emphasis on learning, teamwork, and personal growth instead of winning, they can contribute to a positive and inclusive learning environment. Plus, kids aren’t just little adults—and they are not developmentally ready to face the adult world of competition and winning and losing. Participation trophies protect children’s mental health by giving them “soft places to land in the rocky terrain that is childhood,” as Psychology Today puts it. 

In youth sports more than anywhere else, there is room for both healthy competition and participation. By celebrating the participation part of it, you’re keeping kids in the game, teaching them how to fail, and acknowledging that the skills they possess are just as valuable as the skills of the kid next to them.