Do Participation Awards Inspire Performance?

There are many reasons people would take part in an activity or play a sport; fitness, fun, competition, money, fame, acceptance. Awards? Does everyone play to earn an award or trophy? Do all kids think that the end result should always be to feel like a winner? Do kids think that not everyone should be a loser? Or is it parents who decide they don’t want their kids to be damaged by losing, and therefore feel the need to give ribbons to everyone who shows up? Or do people genuinely feel more inspired when they feel their contribution has mattered, regardless of the result?

As humans we will work hard and focus on the things we want to achieve, and we will work to improve so we meet the goals we have. We want to earn rewards for our hard work and we feel good when we achieve them. However, not every kid wants to grow up to be the next Lionel Messi, Carli Lloyd, or Wayne Gretzky, and it will show in their work rate and effort. Some kids just want to enjoy playing and don’t care about winning or losing.

What does it do for a kid when their team, through hard work and high performance, wins a tournament and the team who finishes last gets the same/similar reward? What does that tell them about the rewards for their hard work and effort? It’s not important to put effort in because “Why work hard? Whether I work hard or not, I still win.” And what of those who don’t win? “Why work hard? Whether I work hard or not, I still win/don’t lose.” Or more likely “Oh, a certificate for doing something I don’t really care about but my parents pushed me into.” What if everyone who went to college was given a degree, just for showing up? What if you work 10 times harder than your coworker and when it came time for pay raises you both got the same. Would you feel inspired to keep working harder, or would you work to the other person’s standard?

Here are the three take aways for today:

1 – Not everyone cares about winning or losing in everything they do, some people just want to have fun. I recently coached a U6 team and after one game in which we didn’t score at all and the other team had one of those kids who can run around everyone and score at will. At the end of the game the kids came off and said “Who won?”. We didn’t score a goal, the other team scored maybe 10 or more (we don’t count at that age in this program). I said “Not sure.” They all high-fived, we did out little hands in the middle “Go Wildcats” thing and everyone went to get ice cream.

2 – We shouldn’t fear losing. When we lose we gain a measurement of where we need to be if we do want to win. In fact, I am sure I am not alone in saying that I have learned much more from my losses and the things that have hurt than I have the wins. Winning feels good, losing feels bad. That’s OK. We don’t have to feel good about everything all the time. It’s OK to feel bad sometimes and if our kids feel bad it gives us a chance to talk to them about identity, shaking off the bad things in life, and focusing on the thing that are controllable. Avoiding losing takes away the moment of self-reflection and asking how we can get better.

3 – Most people don’t want to win at everything they do. Some people simply want to enjoy the game, or improve their health, or just hang out with friends. They don’t need to feel like they have achieved something simply for taking part in something. Put them in a different sport, or Battle of the Bands, or a spelling bee and they may become the most competitive person on the planet, but they may not need a trophy reminding them that they came last, and somehow still won something just for being there. If people care about awards and trophies they will take steps to improve, increase performance, and when they do win them they will be a memento of hard work, not just turning up.

Participation awards devalue not only the winning experience and the satisfaction of achieving fruits for hard work, but they devalue losing. They take away the moment to reflect and commit to improvement. They create an environment where a reward is expected for everything, and they take away the joy of simply playing for fun.

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Categories: Development, Performance, Sport

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