I am a soccer mom. I am a teacher. I am a competitor, and I am not a fan of participation trophies. But something changed about me when I made the move from secondary education to primary grades. My concept of participation has changed.
When I see elementary students, I see potential. They are future adults, and I do my best to help them learn how to communicate with each other properly and with teachers respectfully. When I first moved from secondary, however, I compared students’ athletic (volleyball at the time) potential to what they could be by the end of the season if I just worked with them enough. I did not incorporate my child development courses that first year because I was blinded by my expectations that belonged at the secondary level. Some students just need the encouraging push to get off the bench and participate in the game.
These students who need that extra push at the elementary level are fighting an internal battle even though on the outside it might look like they are rebelling against the jock force. In that mind there is often a fear of failure, a fear of classmates/teammates they find intimidating, or a fear of their lack of knowledge and understanding of the game. To participate carries too great a risk until they can be convinced otherwise. Participation for some is truly gut wrenching.
So when my son received his first soccer participation trophy, I kept these experiences in my mind when we conversed. ‘Son, you will not always receive a trophy for participating,’ I said in a loving tone (as opposed to my sarcastic tone). ‘I won’t?’ he asked, surprised. I let him know that he’d eventually only get to take one home for winning, but by then he would be good enough and old enough to compete for the win. He should always do his best, but that participation trophy is for working hard all season and obeying his coach and treating his teammates the right way.
Keep in mind that your child will someday grow up and get a job where everyone gets a paycheck for participating. So if you have an elementary student who wins a participation trophy or ribbon, please take the time to define what it truly means to participate. It takes hard work, loyalty, teamwork, respect, and self-control. It takes humility and pride at the right times. If your athlete isn’t participating in these ways, sure, give the ribbon back, but it shouldn’t be an act of rebellion against the proverbial establishment. Get on the board and convince them to go back to a simple handshake or even goody bags (not the birthday party kind) instead of trophies or something that will still encourage students to keep playing when the season is over. Until, of course, you have to fill hundreds of goody bags the week before the last game; then you might see why some associations might have switched to ribbons and trophies in the first place.