Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Other Side of the So-Called Trophy Culture

A recent Real Sports broadcast, summarized here, declared that our nation has a problem with a "trophy culture" that coddles kids by handing out trophies for merely showing up for games, or perhaps even simply for signing up for a team whether or not they even come to a practice. At the conclusion, Bryant Gumbel expressed that he didn't see it as a big deal, and was told by the correspondent that it was somehow emblematic of a larger social problem. I find myself far more sympathetic to Gumbel's position.

If you've ever seen very young children play a team sport, like Soccer, you might be reminded of kittens chasing a string. No matter how many times you tell them to hold to their positions, most and sometimes all of the kids will simply chase the ball no matter where it is on the field. At that age you will find some kids who are skilled beyond their years, but for the most part I don't see much benefit in treating a game as if it's a meaningful contest. Let the kids have fun, don't worry about the score, and focus on building their interest and skills for future years.

As kids get a bit older, and they divide into groups of better-skilled and lesser-skilled players, a new question arises: Are you going to give every child some time on the field, or are you going to instead focus on getting the win? When the focus is on the win, stories of bad conduct by adults -- don't take it from me: Here's Real Sports on the issue:

Real Sports found a person by the name of Ashley Merryman to play the part of the scold against tropies. My first reaction to her statements was, "Kids aren't that stupid," or, to put it another way, kids know the difference between getting a trophy for participation, as compared to getting a trophy for their performance. I thought that perhaps somebody had researched the issue and discovered that somebody had -- as explained by none other than Ashley Merryman herself:
By age 4 or 5, children aren’t fooled by all the trophies. They are surprisingly accurate in identifying who excels and who struggles. Those who are outperformed know it and give up, while those who do well feel cheated when they aren’t recognized for their accomplishments. They, too, may give up.
So the issue really isn't that kids are fooled into thinking that their performance exceeds their actual skill set by getting participation trophies -- they know the difference. Having undermined her own argument, Merryman tries to turn it around by arguing that top performers might "give up" if they see other kids get meaningless trophies -- to which I respond, "That's nonsense". When I look at youth sports these days, I see kids performing at the highest levels that I've ever seen, far beyond the performance of the same age cohort when I was a kid. What evidence does Merryman offer to convince me not to believe my lying eyes? That would be... nothing.

At this point the case against participation trophies would seem to be that, past the age of five or six, the kids see them for what they are, and it costs a lot of money to hand out hundreds or thousands of meaningless trophies. Merryman can see that, but just can't stop herself from catastrophizing: "We have to stop letting the Trophy-Industrial Complex run our children’s lives." That would be an argument that's supported by the facts, while extrapolating that participation trophies are emblematic of the ruination of our society, the decline and fall of our civilization... not so much.

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