The Participation Trophy Generation – Good or Bad?

Winning has been watered down thanks to the widespread use of participation trophies. Is it all negative though?

trophies for everyone

There are arguments and debates on both sides of the fence and to be fair, each side does have some points that make sense. We are taking an objective look at the pros and cons of each side and decide whether this participation trophy generation is overall a good thing or a bad thing for society. At the end of this post, I’ll share my personal belief about if we should be rewarding participation with trophies or not.


There is no disputing that the practice of giving out participation trophies is commonplace. According to many old-schoolers and baby boomers, they represent the kids of today being softer than the older generation. The theory goes that when every kid gets a trophy just for playing, everyone loses out when it comes to proper motivation. They especially love talking about the modern-day millennials and Gen Z and how they are a softer breed. This has become such a passionate debate in American culture that they have even made participation trophy memes that get shared around.

Opponents argue that participation trophies have no impact on the level of motivation for kids. What it does do though is give every child an opportunity to be rewarded, even if they didn’t win.

This just scratches the surface of the effects of everyone getting a participation prize no matter how the competition turns out. Let’s look more into each side’s arguments individually first before we weigh out the pros and cons.

participation trophy meme
These are the kinds of memes some boomers share.

Should everyone get a trophy? Arguments in favor

  1. Boosting confidence in kids – Since only a small number of competitors will end up winning, the recognition of getting a prize even if you were the best does give recognition to the other participants in the event. This encourages them to try harder in the future. This positive reinforcement has shown to be effective for encouraging good behavior such as training hard and putting in an effort.
  2. Mitigating the loss of interest for losing – Losing hurts and it can cause a loss of interest in practicing in order to improve in the future. The small prize doesn’t make the sting of loss quite as bad so young athletes will want to continue improving. This is even more true for amateurs or competitors who play more for the fun rather than the desire to be the very best. Competition is great but there is a varying degree of interest in the youth sport/game for every player. Some want to go pro while others just want to enjoy themselves and be more casual.
  3. Teaching other values beyond just winning – By not focusing on only winning 1st place, there is value placed on other intangible factors such as teamwork, and hard work toward a goal. This also reinforces that effort does not go unrewarded. Even though the individual or team did not win, their effort is recognized and given a participation award as a token of that.
  4. Memories of past competitions – Even if all the counterpoints of the participation trophy argument were absolutely true, the trophy still serves as a memento and will bring back memories even decades later.
  5. No one left behind – This school of thought says that everyone should get a trophy because they at least were willing to compete. This also reduced tension between not only the winning team and the losing team (or individuals) but also reduces tension between the members of the losing team. By calming the tension of the players of the losing team there is less chance of infighting and blame being thrown around which can harm the team’s dynamic.

Now a look at the cons of participation trophies

  1. What is the point of winning? – If everyone gets a trophy no matter who wins, why should anyone put in the effort to be the best? When the reward between first and last place isn’t all that different, players can lose extrinsic motivation because even in the worst-case scenario, they still get a trophy for losing that they can put on their shelf. This stifles the competitive nature and the overall play will suffer because of the lack of incentive for being number one and earning the real trophy.
  2. Teaching bad life skills – When you win in life you get rewarded. If you are lazy in life you don’t get a similar prize to the person who won. He gets the promotion or the raise. His business is prosperous. He gets to drive the expensive car and live in luxury. Often in life, the difference between first place and second place is massive. By learning at a young age that winning isn’t very important, the results can become instilled, causing more difficulty due to the incorrect mindset.
  3. False sense of reality – When kids are excessively praised for how smart, good, etc. they are, they can learn to be lazy and expect their skills as a child to carry over into adult life. They are in for a shock when they realize that being ‘so smart’ as an adult doesn’t earn you a thing. Having a good work ethic and discipline are far better skills to praise and encourage young people with as these skills do offer rewards in the real world. This false sense of entitlement because you were praised for something as a kid will not carry over to adult life.
  4. Not learning from mistakes – Without the incentive of only winning a prize if they perform well, kids won’t care as much about their mistakes. They settle for being good enough because it’s easy. Why would they put in the hours of work to hone a skill to become great when being good enough is much easier?
  5. Sense of materialism – The excessive handing out of trophies puts too much emphasis on the physical prize being the reward. Instead of focusing on the real prize of winning which is pride in yourself and your team. Feeling that all your work was worth it when you win. The trophy should be secondary but when everyone gets one, it warps the perceived importance of them.

arm wrestling competition

Is a participation trophy good or bad? My analysis

We know that it isn’t completely clear because both sides do have valid points, even if you don’t agree with each point above, you have to admit that each side has an argument.

I lean more toward the idea that giving rewards to everyone is bad. Not completely bad but if it was my choice I would do away with them. But it’s not a big deal either way as long as the parents or coach can instill the proper mindset into the young children. Without proper guidance, sure, these trophies can have all the negative effects mentioned above. But this participation trophy debate doesn’t happen in a vacuum. These players have parents, coaches, and friends to help guide them and teach them how to be successful in life. As long as this is taken care of, I don’t see any long-term damage coming from this practice. Teach and help the kids to have good, useful life skills and a solid mindset and you won’t have to worry about something as insignificant as a participation award ruining their lives.

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