The Scourge of Youth Sports By: Joshua Chamberlain Posted: January 25, 2012
I work with a lot of different kinds of kids, both as a teacher and as a coach. Many of the kids are from families on the top of the socio-economic food chain, and many are from families just scraping by.
When people ask me about working with kids, they typically ask me with a preconceived judgment in mind. Some folks have decided ahead of time that kids from rich families are spoiled and thus must be discounted because they, as former University of Minnesota football coach Glen Mason frequently put it, were “born on third base and thought they hit a triple.” On the other side are the people who think the lower-income kids are at the school solely because of their athletic ability or the color of their skin and begrudge them for getting the opportunity to receive a good education.
Both of these sides, of course, overlook the important details, instead looking for a more simplistic version of how things work. If you work with kids for a while, especially on the football field, however, you will find that socioeconomic background has very little to do with the way they play and the way they approach the game and their place on the team. Rich kids and poor kids can both run and catch, and rich kids and poor kids can both be good teammates. I would argue that the percentage of rich kids who make it to the NFL simply mirrors the percentage of rich kids in the United States.
Kids are kids, and regardless of their backgrounds they are all looking for the same things. Kids want to be pushed and are always willing to let that happen if they feel appreciated. Kids want to be part of something. Kids can deal with criticism if they know it is genuine and can deal with the reality of situations if they have someone they trust telling them the news. Their reaction, regardless of socioeconomic standing, is almost universal. Kids are not stupid and expect not to be treated that way.
From a football perspective, this means kids want to know where they stand. They want to know the reality of the situation. They can take coaching if they know the coach wants to make them better. Not surprisingly, the coaches who build this type of culture for their teams are typically the most successful. They understand inherently that kids want to earn what they get and absolutely do not want participation trophies.
So, why do participation trophies exist? The simple answer is that they make parents feel better about themselves.
If there is one thing that coaching has taught me, it is that parents are everything kids are not. Parents, in a much bigger way than kids, are not rational. Parents, much more often than kids, refuse to acknowledge that their son is not the best quarterback on the team. Kids want to play, while parents NEED their kids to play. Parents, unlike the kids, cannot deal with criticism without feeling the need to fight back. Parents, much more than the kids, are willing to overlook the lessons learned in a team setting and focus purely on what makes their son look the best. It is important to note that this is not true of all parents, just the most vocal.
Much like with the kids, these issues transcend socioeconomic background. Rich parents and poor parents, just like rich kids and poor kids, are all capable of acting rational as well as irrational. Dan Hawkins, the former University of Colorado football coach, did not discuss race, economics, or any other outside factor during his now-famous rant about a parent. Anyone who has coached knows that he didn’t have to, because that wasn’t the point.
Kids don’t need the participation trophies. Parents do. The same phone call that Hawkins received is received by hundreds of coaches across the country every year. There is an epidemic of well-intentioned yet self-centered parents in America serving to undermine everything sports are supposed to do.
Luckily, the majority of kids understand what is going on. I have never heard of a kid clamoring to hang on to his participation trophies. You will not see kids bring those trophies into school, for the sole reason that the other kids will make fun of them. Kids know when distinctions are real or earned and are skeptical when they are not. Maybe if the parents were as socially aware as the kids, the problem would cease to exist.
Youth sports leagues should start handing out participation trophies to the parents. There are a number of benefits to this:
The coaches could do the presenting at the year-end banquet, which would appease those parents who require the acknowledgement they otherwise sought through phone calls and sideline nonsense.
The normal MVP/MIP trophies would be kept for the kids since they, of course, only care about actual honors, but the parents would all get the satisfaction of being recognized as *fantastic* parents.
The parents would get the incredible satisfaction of having their very own trophies, possibly even covering up the shame of having a terrible black/white/rich/poor athlete for a child. Oh, the horror!
The best part? The kids could then make fun of their parents for parading around a participation trophy the same way they would make fun of another kid for doing it.