The ‘everyone wins a prize’ mentality is killing kids sport

Stuart Thomas Columnist

By Stuart Thomas, Stuart Thomas is a Roar Expert

36 Have your say

    Nick Kyrgios is through to the second round at the Aussie Open. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta-Journal Constitution via AP)

    Going to a birthday party at the house of a member of my under 8s rugby league team, I remember being amazed at the number of trophies the boy had acquired in a few short years of competitive sport.

    In fairness, this kid was a heck of an athlete. State runner, swimmer and representative footballer, he was gifted and made many of us look average in comparison.

    All the glory was for first, second and third place achievements in a variety of disciplines. Not one of them was for participation or fourth.

    In addition, there were no trophies or medals without a name.

    Things are very different four decades later. My kids have medals and trophies all over the place. Nameless, vague trophies, obviously pre-ordered and awarded to teams for mere participation in pointless gala days or given by clubs on award nights as thanks for representing them.

    It’s great that $200 in registration fees is returned to me in the form of a $5, un-engraved trinket that in years to come no one will be able to identify who the recipient was.

    The age of entitlement is here. Kids are lauded and rewarded for participation at every level of their sporting journey – and frankly are worse off for it.

    Watching one of my kids play D Grade netball and seeing parents flushed with pride when a semi-final spot is achieved is great. I coached the team and pushing them to achieve their best is what it should be all about.

    Yet rewarding those kids with trophies and accolades disproportionate to their success seems silly. Grandparents hear of the achievements, see trophies and start to perpetuate the most horrible phenomena that is crippling our kids in both sport and life itself.

    That phenomenon sees kids constantly affirmed, never criticised and told they are in fact better than they actually are.

    I see it every day in my role as an educator, as students increasingly expect work to be done for them, while complaints from the corporate sector seem to be regarding graduates with a similar way of thinking.

    Athletics and swimming carnivals are evil havens of the phenomena. Elite races are run and the best of the best in a particular age group battle it out, with the top three earning the spoils. As the rest of the races are held and the slower or less skilled competitors compete to gain points for their team, ribbons are handed out at the finishing line of every race.

    Watching a very limited child, in terms of skill, run or swim their way to fourth place in a field of five and walk away proudly with a yellow ribbon is something I will never understand.

    I am well aware that all kids are at different levels, that some kids will never excel at certain ,endeavours and yes, that people do respond well to encouragement. However, this absurd obsession with making sure every kid is told they are a ‘winner’ helps no one.

    My youngest is twice as skilled a netballer as my eldest and plays in a high division. Somehow she has managed to receive fewer awards than her older sister.

    She still receives all the tokenistic participation awards, yet due to the tough nature of the competition in which she plays, achieves less major successes such as grand finals, as they are so much harder to reach.

    The dynamics of the generation moving through junior sport at this time scares me. By telling kids they are all winners, do we undermine the concept of losing and in turn appreciating the efforts of the opponents in being better? Are we creating another graduating class of Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic types, who seemingly do not see the effort of the opponent or possess the ability to lose with grace or dignity?

    Humility is a wonderful human experience. Without it, people live in a proverbial bubble, believing things about themselves and others that will in fact harm them in the long run.

    Watching the selfish, brattish behaviour of Andre Agassi as a young man was exciting and the tennis world told him he was every bit as good as what he thought he was. Yet is wasn’t until he got over his threats of not playing at Wimbledon, due to his insistence that he be allowed to wear his brightly coloured gear, that he began to grow up.

    The simple act of being told ‘no’ and seeing the greater meaning and significance behind the dress code was instrumental in his 1992 Wimbledon victory, and the improved player and man that he became in subsequent years.

    Jack Nicklaus will probably go down in history as one of the best players and people in mainstream sport. His humility is legendary. Listening to him speak about that humility in a documentary was inspiring, and his insistence that all he does is hit a ball around a field and “just happen to do it in less strokes than anyone else”, is a remarkable perspective.

    Fanning egos, as we do with our children, might breed more success and confidence in the short term, yet over the course, the most effective way to help people is to encourage humility.

    I’d prefer to hear balanced comments around the fields and courts on a Saturday morning.

    “The best kid won today and if you want to beat them, you will need to work a little harder.”

    “Well played boys, but let’s remember this isn’t the NRL.”

    “Let’s shake hands girls, they were way too good for us today.”

    Sure, there a lot of great coaches out there who manage the balance between enjoyment, participation and success extremely well. In fact, coaches and managers are probably less to blame than over-expectant parents who, at times, live vicariously through their beautiful children.

    Without going to the extreme of telling our kids that they are rubbish, untalented and limited in their abilities, perhaps there is a need for a more measured, honest and reasonable evaluation of their skills.

    Life will teach them that very few people actually win prizes, yet those who do generally deserve it.

    Stuart Thomas
    Stuart Thomas

    Stuart Thomas is a sports writer and educator who made the jump from Roar Guru to Expert in 2017. An ex-trainee professional golfer, his sporting passions are broad with particular interests in football, AFL and rugby league. His love of sport is only matched by his passion for gardening and self-sustainability. Follow him on Twitter @stuartthomas72.

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    The Crowd Says (36)

    • January 12th 2017 @ 4:15am
      ROBERT DARLING said | January 12th 2017 @ 4:15am | ! Report

      Great article. As i’m getting older (Only 34) you do realise that life isn’t fair and sport is a great reflection of that. The frustration in my cricketing career of never making semi finals made it all the more sweeter to finally win a premiership. It is a reflection on life, you will have good times and bad, learning how the handle the set backs is a big part of it.

      Nobody is going to give you your dream job and you will miss out on plenty of jobs and dream partners in your life. Coming last in a school swimmer carnival is just a small but important piece of humble pie and the sooner people are exposed to a bit of ‘defeat’ the better off they will be!

      • Columnist

        January 12th 2017 @ 9:00am
        Stuart Thomas said | January 12th 2017 @ 9:00am | ! Report

        Well said Robert, I agree wholeheartedly, I know some people might disagree with us and feel its a bit ‘old school’ but the kids I see everyday believe they are so terrific at everything they do and they really aren’t. Just don’t think they are getting as many knocks on the chin as we did and I reckon our young athletes reflect that. Especially when they retire from competition.

    • January 12th 2017 @ 4:33am
      Jeff Milton said | January 12th 2017 @ 4:33am | ! Report

      So the good kids need to feel better by having more medals than the less talented kids? Why should they care who gets a medal?

      The behaviour of tomic etc is not due to participation medals. Some people are just d-heads

      • January 12th 2017 @ 5:49am
        John said | January 12th 2017 @ 5:49am | ! Report

        That’s not how I read the article, and I doubt that’s how he intended it.

        • Columnist

          January 12th 2017 @ 8:56am
          Stuart Thomas said | January 12th 2017 @ 8:56am | ! Report

          Correct John, more attempting to present the irony of the situation.

    • Roar Guru

      January 12th 2017 @ 7:30am
      Wayne said | January 12th 2017 @ 7:30am | ! Report

      I won my first individual trophy at the age of 27 (been playing sport on/off since I was 8).

      It’s still got pride of place on the shelf. I recognise it as my highest individual achievement with the 2 premierships, 2 runner up medals for team contributions

    • January 12th 2017 @ 9:29am
      murdic said | January 12th 2017 @ 9:29am | ! Report

      If nobody except the winners are recognised, the number of participants for them to win against falls away, the interest in their ‘achievement’ evaporate along with its stature, and their highly paid professional competitions become unviable because nobody’s watching or buying their sponsors’ products. Dismissing recognition for participation as worthless is itself churlish and brattish. While an “uninscribed trinket” won’t impress the mates you want to regale with tales of heroic endeavour, it’s as valid as a team photo on the sideboard to inspire memories. Fact of the matter is: if you aren’t world number one, it’s only in your own mind that you’re more impressive than anyone else.

      • Columnist

        January 12th 2017 @ 11:24am
        Stuart Thomas said | January 12th 2017 @ 11:24am | ! Report

        Appreciate your reply murdic, yet a slight misrepresentation. I clearly mentioned 2nd and 3rd place rewards and spoke about disproportionate affirmation as being the issue. It is wonderful to encourage kids to play and compete, yet keeping this all in perspective to ability is vital. My football team was all beginners last season, netball d grade, 9ths and 10ths basketball, beginners Oztag, so am well aware of the importance of participation. Thanks for reading, much appreciated.

        • January 12th 2017 @ 2:54pm
          murdic said | January 12th 2017 @ 2:54pm | ! Report

          Where’s the proportionality, the perpective, in thinking that acknowledging kids’ participation is disproportionate recognition, telling them that they’re better than they are?

          • Columnist

            January 12th 2017 @ 3:56pm
            Stuart Thomas said | January 12th 2017 @ 3:56pm | ! Report

            As I said in the article, watching kids get fourth and fifth place ribbons is sickening. I see kids get out of the pool and someone hand them a ribbon and say, ‘wow, that was great, you’re a great swimmer, well done.’ I think to myself, no they’re not. What’s wrong with earning the point for the team, that’s participation, do they really need to be told they are good when they really aren’t. I tell my kids the truth and they both play three four sports, often with me as coach and our relationship is excellent. It doesn’t have to hurt the kid, just provide them with an honest appraisal of their ability.

            • January 12th 2017 @ 4:36pm
              Jeff Milton said | January 12th 2017 @ 4:36pm | ! Report

              A 4th place ribbon is sickening ? Whoa there tiger

      • January 12th 2017 @ 5:39pm
        northerner said | January 12th 2017 @ 5:39pm | ! Report

        I guess I’m a bit on the fence on this one.

        I think participation is important, and I think its important for kids to feel that their participation means something. That, it seems to me, is up to the parents, the coach, their teammates. I’m just not convinced that handing out medals and ribbons is the way to go about it. In my day (more years ago than I care to remember), sports were organized mainly on a school basis, and the kids that were heavily into sport got sweaters with the school letter on it after they’d reached a certain number of games.. So the letters went to the better (or more determined) athletes. That was recognition of participation back then, and a school shirt, team photo, that sort of thing, seemed, and still seems appropriate. Even then, though, not all the kids that played sports got that letter: there were conditions around how many sports and how many games you played. There was always something to aspire to.

        Sorry about that digression down memory lane. To get to my point, in my mind, medals and ribbons are for accomplishment, not participation. That is not in anyway equivalent to “dismissing recognition for participation as worthless.” It is saying that “excellence” deserves recognition beyond team sweaters or school letters. If there’s no distinction between the very average player in the team and the really talented and accomplished player who works hard at improving his technical ability, then why would that talented player continue to strive for excellence? And why would the average player work to become better, if there’s no one to tell him he’s not really cutting it?

        Participating in sports has plenty of reward all on its own – friendship, exercise, fun, excitement – and for most kids, that’s enough. As it should be. He or she will always have the memories and the team photos. The better players – the ones with more talent, more willingness to work hard to improve – get the medals and the extra recognition.

        That’s not a bad lesson for later life. Not to many rewards in employment – promotions, better job offers – come on the back of showing up for work every day. It takes more than that, and kids need to understand that there is no automatic entitlement to success just for being at the desk on time.

        All of that being said, I think there’s an age limit on all of this: I think, for the youngest kids, participation is more important than results, and the coaches that let all the six year-olds play rather than bench the not-so-gifted ones, are doing the right thing, because they’re building a love of the sport or of sport in general, into those kids. I’d have a different view if the kids were 15 or 16 though – at that age, they need to understand competition.

        • January 12th 2017 @ 5:41pm
          northerner said | January 12th 2017 @ 5:41pm | ! Report

          Ermm, sorry about that Canadianism creeping in. By school sweater, I mean school cardigan (I think).

      • January 13th 2017 @ 10:27am
        Paul Ellison said | January 13th 2017 @ 10:27am | ! Report

        Isn’t participation enough reward!? Kids shouldn’t need a ribbon or medal when they get a day off school or get to run around with your buddies on the weekend.

    • January 12th 2017 @ 2:37pm
      Beero said | January 12th 2017 @ 2:37pm | ! Report

      I am not seeing the link between the theory that trophies are teaching kids to be more self entitled and the evidence provided in the article. Such as:
      – anecdotal evidence of the author as an educator seeing kids being more self-entitled, but no evidence connecting it to more kids getting trophies.
      – Kyrgios and Tomic: really do not see the connection here. I do not know them but i would have thought they never got participation trophies, they would have got winners trophies, because they were being touted at such a young age and trained to be professionals. If their brattish behaviour has got any connection it is from being brought up in a ‘winning only matters’ culture, not a ‘it is good to participate culture’.
      – Agassi: I would have thought his brattish behaviour (only from reading his autobiography) is from a mixture of rebelling from his dad who forced him into a winner takes all mentality – by hitting 1000 balls every night, even when he was under 10 years old. His dad did not want him to participate – but to be a winner. So his self-entitled attitude appears to be more from winning than getting participation trophies.
      – The author’s daughters: Is the author trying to claim that the less talented daughter is more ‘self entitled’ than the more talented daughter? I would be very surprised as it sounds like he is a good hands on dad that even gets amongst coaching his kids teams.

      I would have thought that participatory trophies are being used to demonstrate that all kids provide value to the team and that should be recognised – promoting teamwork, instead of a culture that breeds a winner takes all mentality. As a dad, I am happy that my kids will be told that their efforts provide value and create the culture of working in a team than being told winning only matters.

      Does the author have any evidence that shows how given children more sport stories is connected to the apparent ‘self entitlement’???

      • Columnist

        January 12th 2017 @ 3:47pm
        Stuart Thomas said | January 12th 2017 @ 3:47pm | ! Report

        Hi Beero, I’ll go point by point.

        In regards to the anecdotal evidence. Awards are given to students for ‘unbroken attendance’ in some schools. An award for turning up, irrespective of what they contribute. Kids also feel entitled to play no matter their ability. In our day we were dropped or left out if we weren’t good enough. Kids feel entitled, and are shown that entitlement. My point is the connection therefore between the awarding of trophies etc and the sense of entitlement adopted.
        Tomic and Kyrgios have been told since they were young that they were better than others, now the media feeds their egos. If you look closely at the article their inclusion relates to the idea of fanning egos and the need for people like them to be humbled in order to gain some perspective rather that being about the trophies they received. I’m sure they deserved every one of them.
        The Agassi example is similar in that he was a young kid treated like a god. The fanning of egos is the professional equivalent of the distribution of ribbons to kids for rather underwhelming achievements.
        My overall point is that we all need to be humbled, unfortunately people seem scared to be honest and humble kids with honest appraisals of their ability.
        In regards to the less gifted sibling, I’m lucky, in that her interests lie elsewhere, yet at times I have felt that she, and her team mates have felt an inflated sense of their own talents. As you point out, this is not necessarily entitlement, my point is that the kernels in kids sport might then lead to some of the arrogant nonsense we see from our young stars as they mature.
        I liked your point about winners, yet unfair to suggest that I would proportion the view that only winners matter. My point, as the articles concludes, was that the winners get the victory, everyone else can be encouraged till the cows come how, yet let’s keep it all in perspective and not tell them that they are better than what they really are.

        • January 12th 2017 @ 4:38pm
          Jeff Milton said | January 12th 2017 @ 4:38pm | ! Report

          How about all the other top tennis players that have been told that since childhood and turned out normal ?
          This is a column straight out of the Phil Roth field school of journalism

          • Columnist

            January 12th 2017 @ 5:04pm
            Stuart Thomas said | January 12th 2017 @ 5:04pm | ! Report

            Oh you mean like Murray, ivanisevic, Hewitt, philipoussis, monfils, janowisz, dokic, capriati, strycova, tarango, lucic, Williams etc. The reason Federer, Djokovic and a few other cleanskins stand out is the rest of them are the most poorly behaved, immature and self entitled little you know what’s. Tennis players and normal doesn’t go. Happy to agree to disagree, but the rothfield thing hit me hard. Thanks for reading mate,

            • January 13th 2017 @ 4:41am
              Jeff Milton said | January 13th 2017 @ 4:41am | ! Report

              Scooping the barrel bringing out a television c like Jeff Tarango
              The great majority of tennis players are well behaved given the pressure they are under
              Thanks Rebecca Wilson

              • Columnist

                January 13th 2017 @ 8:28am
                Stuart Thomas said | January 13th 2017 @ 8:28am | ! Report

                Yeah, okay. Seeing as you like to compare people so much, thanks Norm O’Neill.

        • January 12th 2017 @ 4:48pm
          Beero said | January 12th 2017 @ 4:48pm | ! Report

          I get your point to keep things in perspective and to not fan ego’s – however, that is where I am confused by your argument. You provide examples of sportsman whose ego’s were fanned too much because they were winners (i.e. where trophies are given to a select few and the focus was completely on them because they kept winning), not because they were given trophies for participating.

          Though I agree that parents/kids should not be self entitled and we should not be enabling kids and parents that display those behaviours. I just do not see any evidence from your article connecting the two. If Kyrgios/Tomic/young Agassi were brought up in a culture valuing participation, instead of a culture that only values winning, then they potentially would be more level headed and less brattish, because the focus would not always be on them.

    • January 12th 2017 @ 3:01pm
      matth said | January 12th 2017 @ 3:01pm | ! Report

      My son’s cricket coach recently made the following excellent comment, which I wholeheartedly endorsed:

      “Do your homework, because I’m pretty sure none of you are playing for Australia”.

      It was more for the benefit of a couple of over the top parents.

      Back in the day 99% of people played sport for the camaraderie and fitness and to compete with yourself to get better. Now it appears kids have to be bribed to play with a ribbon.

      • Columnist

        January 12th 2017 @ 3:51pm
        Stuart Thomas said | January 12th 2017 @ 3:51pm | ! Report

        Great line and probably applicable to 99% of the kids out there playing cricket. I was a professional golfer in a previous life and despite playing well, was kidding myself. I worked out myself that I wasn’t going to hit the heights. Dreaming the dream is great but reality needs to kick in at some point. I’d rather be honest with kids all the way through. Thanks for reading.

        • January 12th 2017 @ 6:24pm
          Gray-Hand said | January 12th 2017 @ 6:24pm | ! Report

          Ahh, that explains it.

          • Columnist

            January 12th 2017 @ 6:36pm
            Stuart Thomas said | January 12th 2017 @ 6:36pm | ! Report

            Hope you’re not suggesting this is an article written with bitterness after a failed sporting career. Couldn’t live a more happy life, more about my kids, the kids I teach and coach. Cheap comment. No disrespect gray but a fair way off the mark.

      • January 12th 2017 @ 4:39pm
        Jeff Milton said | January 12th 2017 @ 4:39pm | ! Report

        Matt, where is your evidence of this?

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