Sometimes we take good ideas too far. I am all for good sportsmanship and making other people feel good about themselves, but even those ideas have their limits. Recently the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association banned fans at high school sports games from chanting anything deemed “insensitive.” Among the banned chants are “air ball,” “we can’t hear you,” and “you can’t do that.” This is an excellent example of taking a good idea — encouraging sportsmanship by fans at games — to a level that takes away from the point of the game in the first place.
Here’s another example: participation trophies. Participation trophies, according to Cornell psychology professor Kenneth Barish, are a way to emphasize other values in sports that come alongside winning, such as effort, improvement and hard work. Those are great values. But do participation trophies really emphasize those? And if they do, at what cost?
I remember losing the championship game in a Little League baseball tournament. It was painful to lose as a kid, and I remember wanting never to lose at anything again. I also remember how satisfying it felt to win. This competitiveness, which I developed at a very young age, helped me succeed in sports, in school and in building perseverance.
Life is competitive. The college admissions process is competitive. Grades are competitive. The job market is competitive. Sheltering children from this reality by telling them that there is no difference between winners and losers is not only foolish but dishonest.
Kobe Bryant is renowned for his work ethic. There are legendary stories about his personal dedication, including one by a member of the Olympic training staff who recounts how Bryant would wake him up at 3:30 a.m. to pass to him while Bryant took shots. That kind of work ethic would be admirable even if Bryant had not won five NBA titles. However, if there were no difference between winning an NBA title and finishing last in the league, Bryant would have no reason to sacrifice his sleep.
Moreover, General George S. Patton was the sort of leader America needed when faced with one of its greatest challenges. His speech to the Third Army in 1944 shows that he knew the value of recognizing a winner: “When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big-league ball players and the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans. [Winning] brings out all that is best and it removes all that is base.”
Everyone who has ever entered a final exam, a job interview or an election knows the value of winning. Throughout all of history, winners have been honored, and losers have been dishonored — rightly so. So how could it possibly be that participation trophies, which neither honor winners nor dishonor losers, are a good thing?
Some claim it is because children are not yet mature enough to deal with the harsh realities of losing a Pop Warner football game or a third grade volleyball match. I have two problems with this logic. First, I doubt that not getting a trophy in a youth sports league has ever been a significant factor in any sort of long-term psychological damage, and I would even go so far as to say there is often great benefit in this happening, as in my case.
Second, habits are extremely hard to change. Developing helpful values and habits early in life is essential to living a good life. As ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt said in reference to the WIAA chant decision, “Shielding kids from things that aren’t even harmful makes them feeble and weak-minded.” Of course there are things from which children should be shielded, but the alleged adverse effect of losing a few youth sports games is not one of them.
Ancient philosophy from Proverbs to Plato emphasizes the importance of instilling good values and habits at a young age. We disregard this wisdom at our peril. We shouldn’t devalue winning and competitiveness, which is what participation trophies do but instead use the positive lessons gained from losing to instill the values that participation trophies actually discourage: hard work, teamwork, effort and improvement. Not allowing children to lose denies them those lessons.
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