slice of life · swimming

The Problem with Participation Awards

I wanted to give a couple of my students a second recognition award during the school year when I was a classroom teacher. I was met with resistance. I was asked if all of the students in my classroom had received an award. The answer was no. I was (politely) told everyone needed to receive an award before anyone could win a second recognition award. I seethed. Basically, I was being told that the kids who were working the hardest shouldn’t be recognized for their diligence until everyone’s ego was stoked, whether they deserved it or not. That didn’t sit well with me back then. Years later, I still don’t understand that line of thinking.


Seeing as being on the swim team for the first time IS a big accomplishment, I encouraged Isabelle to hang the medal up in her room. She didn’t want to. I slid it over the headboard of her bed. After I did, she told me, “It looks good there.”

Over the weekend, Isabelle, Marc, and I drove home from her swim banquet. Marc and I remarked about how proud we were of Isabelle for trying a new sport, being on a team for the first time, and doing her personal best each and every time she swam in a meet this summer. However, there wasn’t much coming at us from the backseat.

After some small talk, I said, “You should be so proud of yourself, Isabelle. Are you proud of yourself?”

“I didn’t win a medal or a trophy,” she replied flatly.

“What do you mean? You got a medal.”

Isabelle quickly pointed out that everyone who was new to the swim team got those medals. (She was correct.) “I didn’t win a trophy like P.J.,” she said referring to a boy her age who received two trophies.

“You’re right,” I replied. “You didn’t win any trophies.”

“Why not?” she inquired.

I explained how those trophies were for kids who finished in first, second, or third place in a swim race. I explained that even though she shaved time off every time she raced, she didn’t finish in the top three in any of her races. I explained that not everyone can win the races.

Isabelle didn’t seem to care about the things I said. She was disappointed she didn’t go home with something three-dimensional and shiny.

Here’s the thing. I AM MORE THAN OKAY that Isabelle didn’t walk away with a participation trophy. Here’s are a few reasons why:

  1. Isabelle saw right through the first-year recognition medal she won. She knew it wasn’t a real award. Maybe receiving a participation trophy would’ve helped in the moment, but she would’ve seen through anything unattached to a top-three finish.
  2. I was a terrible athlete in middle school. (Let’s be honest, I never excelled at anything besides Pilates and swimming.) I was on the “B Team” for both field hockey and softball. As a result, I never received an award because I wasn’t any good at either sport. Perhaps if I had received a phony award, I would’ve kept participating instead of finding something I could excel at. Instead, I tried other things, like drama, student government, and newspaper. Eventually, I found something I enjoyed doing AND was good at. I’m sure the coaching staff was happy when I was no longer on their teams too!
  3. Isabelle has a fire in her belly ever since Saturday night. She never talked about winning all season. Now, she’s determined to win a race next year, which means she’s going to practice more this summer and before next year.

Isabelle loves to swim, which is why I signed her up for swim team. Somehow, I think not receiving a participation trophy was a good thing. You see, because I knew she wasn’t going to come in a ranking position at any of the meets, I kept her focused on doing her personal best each time. She bought into that all season long. And that matters! But now that she knows there are trophies, I am confident she will work towards individual progress and contributing to the team’s overall score next swim season.

We shall find out how this shakes out next summer!

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19 thoughts on “The Problem with Participation Awards

  1. Oh trophies. What more can I add, but that I agree with you. Kids do see right through “everyone gets a trophy.” This reminds me of my Kindergarteners playing board games during choice time. I often hear, “Is this a game with one winner?” Yes, it is, and that is how life works.

    1. I think it is important to learn that lesson early on. I don’t throw games to allow my daughter to win. That would only give her a false sense of accomplishment. What good is that?

  2. I love how you made the case on both sides of the “participation” argument as there are definite benefits either way you lean. This reminds me of “reading” participation certificates that my colleague wanted to do. Since we celebrated ALL readers, not just those who reached the 40 book challenge, I opted to write a note on their end of year books instead, personalizing a message about their reading growth for the year. From one swimmer to another…and a budding one, too…I’m glad Isabelle found the determination she needs to improve for herself! Nice job, parents!

  3. Kids are sharper than we sometimes give them credit for and they can see right through things. Although it is hard, the line, “I learned more from failure than I did from success.” is so true because it gives us the drive to push ourselves and set new goals. Wishing Isabelle success in her goal.

  4. I love the focus on bettering her own time and that she’s motivated now! GO Isabelle! I have a confession…I have never won a trophy. It never really mattered to me. Weird, huh? Hadn’t really thought about it until I started writing this comment. Hmmm…anyway, go Isabelle! Happy swimming!

    1. I’ve never won one either, Michelle. (Unless you count the two trophies I won for being on the field hockey and softball teams during the seasons the team was undefeated. Don’t think I had much to do with that, but I got one for each of them anyway!)

  5. I love how you boldly state “because I wasn’t any good at either sport.” I think this is too harsh a reality for some people (children and adults) to face. The kid thinks he or she is talented because they have some hardware to show for their efforts (participation trophy). Some parents want the child to be good, and so in their loving eyes, the child is without fail.
    This post was spot on, and I thank you for writing it!

  6. Yes! Yes! Yes! I struggle with awards in general – I hate that we limit top awards when there may be multiple truly worthy candidates and I hate that we distribute awards for showing up. I have a few trophies for swimming and, let me tell you, I’m still stinking proud of them all these years later. I worked for those. Like Isabelle, seeing others being honored for their achievements really motivated me to swim. I want my kids to have the experience of striving – whether they succeed or fail – not of being told that excellence is the equivalent of attendance. (Ooh, but see – even writing that makes me feel curmudgeonly – which makes me like your post even more!)

    1. Part of me felt a little curmudgeonly when I wrote this post. But then I realized, I AM A CHILD OF THE 80’S and no one got awards for showing up! (At least no one I knew.) I feel like that’s a phenomenon of the past 20 years.

      ALSO, be proud of those trophies! You worked hard for them.

  7. My oldest used to get trophies for her dance recitals. Then they switched to metals. This year I purchased trophies, being sold in the lobby now, since it was my middle daughter’s first recital. They’re so proud of those heaps of plastic.

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