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The Case for Participation Awards



In recent years, we’ve all seen the occasional comedian, blogger, or writer mention participation awards in a negative light. The gist of the negative comments relate to getting something for nothing or rewarding mediocrity, resulting in a “trophy culture.”

Fortunately, thousands of enlightened leaders, coaches, and parents have not let these criticisms diminish their ongoing efforts to recognize athletes young and old in their endeavors. Youth sports and activities are an integral part of the development of children into mature adults. Taking part in a sport or activity does so many things for a child, and that’s worth rewarding.

Here are a few benefits of youth sports and activities:

Socialization: Being part of something that involves many people adds to a child’s identity. They aren’t just John Smith or Sally Jones, but a member of the flag football team or the youth dance competition. This sense of belonging breaks down barriers that children—or adults—might have, instilling confidence that helps them communicate and develop friendships, relationships, and life skills.

Achievement: Many communities offer sports and activities for children of all ages to choose from. This wide variety enables each child to find something that he or she is comfortable with and possibly good at. Achievement in school can be augmented with achievements on a sports team. Recognizing good results by giving awards for hard effort builds pride and confidence.

Sportsmanship: Good sportsmanship is a life skill that if learned early can help to create more responsible adults. It’s a skill that will be used for decades to come in the workplace, at home, and on the sports field.

Responsibility and Teamwork: When you’re part of a team, each team member shares responsibility for achieving the team’s goals. That goal might be playing better defense in a game or improving the team’s time on the second leg of a cross-country course by 30 seconds. Each young athlete knows that their individual effort and enthusiasm affects more than them personally. They must work hard to help the entire team. This dynamic is a building block for the type of adults we want in society.

Mutual Welfare and Benefit: I’ve practiced judo for more than 30 years, and it has a basic tenet that all students learn: We all, as members, have to look out for, train, and assist one another, and if we do so, we will ALL progress. This applies to all team sports and group activities.

Exercise: In the age of desks and screens, children and adults need exercise of the body and the mind. This should be encouraged in every way possible.

Each of these benefits bestows life lessons that are crucial to teach children often and as early as possible. The hope and goal is for the children to bring these practices into adulthood.

I could go on. Instead, I’m going to go out on a limb and state categorically that youth sports and activities are great for our world.


In sports and group activities across the country, participants receive something at the end of a competition or season. It might be an award or trophy, a certificate or ribbon, or even a high-five. The cynics would say, “What did they do to deserve it?”

What did they do?

They got up, turned off the TV and smartphone, and left the house for practice. They worked hard in practice, listened and learned from their coaches, and endured the embarrassment of slipping, falling, or missing the goal completely in front of their peers. They memorized plays, assignments, and their team members’ names and numbers. They made time for their sport while also doing their homework, other extracurriculars, and their chores. While their friends were watching popular shows, sleeping in, or hanging out, they went to practice and competitions.

That’s what they did to deserve recognition.

What about us adults? How often do you do something for nothing? The last time you attended an out-of-town meeting or conference, were you given a memento or a “swag bag”? What did you do to deserve that? I’ll tell you what: You got off your couch, went somewhere, and learned something. Sounds kind of like what I mentioned earlier with young athletes.

Did you ever run in a race? Did you get a medal, even if you weren’t the fastest runner there? Did you deserve your participation award? Yes!

So, yes, kids absolutely do deserve this recognition.


Critics claim participation awards prevent children from dealing with adversity while inflating their opinions of themselves, adversely affecting performance.


Can we remember here that we’re talking about participation awards? These kids aren’t taking home massive awards engraved with “First Place” or “MVP”! Children know the difference between awards given for participation and outstanding achievement. They know the first-place award is much more special, and they strive to do better to earn that award.

Also, it’s important to note that participation awards are geared toward encouraging very young children. A participation award differentiates the efforts of kids who shoot hoops on the driveway when they’re bored from kids who are coached, practice, learn plays, and play against other trained players.


Critics like to claim that participation awards are a recent invention, but participation awards aren’t a new phenomenon. Let’s go way back to one of the most recognized participation awards of the last 100 years: the school letter or pin.

Every team member received letters or pins to apply to their jackets or sweaters to showcase their membership in a team or club. This publicly acknowledged that the person participated in that team or club and that their hard work deserved recognition.

This tradition started with letter sweaters created by baseball players at Harvard University in 1865. If modern critics of participation awards were right, Harvard should have been churning out underachieving slackers for more than 150 years.

The truth is that participation awards lead to further achievement, inspire new participants to join teams, and encourage existing players to continue competing.

Every child and adult hits their stride at different times, and it’s important to keep them involved in the meantime. The kid getting the participation award today could be earning the MVP trophy in a decade; in the meantime, the participation award motivates him or her to continue trying.

A participation award is a great and lasting way to encourage and acknowledge effort. If you don’t think this motivation lasts, take a look at the kid’s bedroom in the photo at left, where these pieces have a place of honor. They are more than awards; they are also souvenirs, gifts, and mementos of a season of shared experiences.

Recognition does work.

Jim O’Neill is the executive vice president of Chicago, IL-based Pacesetter Awards. An industry veteran of 45 years, O’Neill is passionate about the awards industry and the positive role recognition has on all individuals. O’Neill is a known thought leader on the topic of recognition and encourages the republishing of this work with proper attribution and author notification. O’Neill can be contacted at


My friend, who coached a Little League baseball team, had a player who’d been persuaded to join the team despite a bad experience the previous year when he’d been picked on and not played well on a different team. On my friend’s team, this young boy had another bad season, but he was talked into playing again, because he would have fun and earn a cool trophy.

The next year, his third season playing baseball, he had a growth spurt and his game improved. He continued to improve at baseball the next year and the next, all through high school and college. This young man, who would have quit baseball in fourth grade, is Taylor Ostrich who was signed by the Kansas City Royals in the 34th round of the 2014 draft.

“It’s not about rewarding the best,” said Jim Jensen, who is my friend, Ostrich’s childhood coach, and owner of Trophies Plus in Breda, IA, . “It’s about making sure everyone has a chance to have fun and learn something, not just learn the sport, but learn teamwork, social skills, and confidence. Plus, just ‘cause you’re the biggest and baddest 10-year-old now doesn’t mean you will be the biggest and baddest when you are 18.”


Let’s talk about the experience of getting the participation award. Depending on the sport or activity, the leader or coach has a plan for giving out the awards.

If an end-of-season pizza party isn’t an option, the leader might gather the participants—and hopefully their parents—on the field, in the gym, or at school. As he or she presents the awards, the coach should talk about each child’s experience using specifics.

“Sally, your defense got so much better as the year went on. I felt safe when you were on defense. Way to go! Great season!” For each child, there is always an encouraging anecdote that can publicly acknowledge their effort.

After the ceremony, players can take pictures with their awards and their coach—or with their teammates. In some cases, team members even autograph each other’s awards, creating an even more valuable keepsake of the time they spent together.

As a soccer coach, I absolutely treasured the awards ceremony. Over the years, we held it during the team pizza party or at the field. The setting didn’t matter as much as ensuring the team was together with the players’ parents. I would gather and quiet everyone; this was to be a ceremony. I would bring up each child, one by one, and from superstar to “also ran,” I tried to say something that made each player feel good.

One season, a boy on my team seemingly could score at will. He was a terrific kid and very team oriented. He scored several goals during the season. When I was presenting him with his award, I told the story of his excellent pass to one of our younger players and how it allowed the younger player to score.

He got it. He didn’t need to hear about the goals he was scoring; he already knew about the value of those. But he took great pride in helping his teammate score, and having this acknowledged was meaningful.

Every superstar with an exemplary individual season has a great moment of teamwork that a coach can highlight to send an important message to everyone about the valuable skills they are gaining. A reminder of that during the listing of accomplishments should be at the top.

During the same ceremony, when I presented another player with his award, I recounted his great pick from a star player’s breakaway that seemed hopeless to stop. This player hadn’t had a great season, but everyone had cheered that play earlier in the season. When I talked about it during the ceremony, I could tell he was happy to see that we remembered.

To every child there was always that big moment in the season where they picked the ball or blocked a shot.

Executed properly, the awards ceremony is great for every member of the team. The superstars get to see what really matters and struggling players learn that their efforts have been noticed and appreciated.

Do you know a coach or organizer who skips the recognition and tells players to grab a trophy from the box? Download a tip sheet on creating a meaningful youth sports recognition program at

We’ve made it easy for coaches, parents, and league organizers to establish a meaningful sports recognition program, read our tips and make recognition meaningful.

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