Another look at sports participation medals

By Nancy Justis, correspondent

In my last column, I discussed the debate over awarding participation medals or trophies in youth sports.

I cited a New York Times opinion letter that noted some form of recognition should be given to all participants — not just winners — even if the gift was just a certificate. The author supported the idea awards to all could help build confidence and self-esteem.

I see both sides of the issue and am not fully swayed one way or the other. So I am here again to provide additional opinions on the subject.

As a backdrop, my interest in this topic emerged after hearing about All-Pro linebacker James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers making his 8- and 6-year-old sons return trophies from just showing up at a camp.

“While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do … these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy,” he was quoted as saying on Instagram.

Fred Bowen in a KidsPost column in The Washington Post wrote of speaking with Brian Sanders, president of i9 Sports, an organization that runs more than 500 youth sports leagues. Sanders reported i9 Sports leagues give participation awards at the end of the season to its athletes younger than 14, in addition to awards for good sportsmanship and to division champions.

“(We should) do everything to keep the kids playing,” Sanders said. “Showing up is part of being a team.”

Bowen, like myself, finds himself somewhere in the middle on the issue.

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“… It’s OK to give young kids a small award for playing on a team. But as kids grow up — when they’re age 10 and older — trophies and similar prizes should be given only for a winning season or for outstanding play or hustle. Playing sports encourages kids to improve. Awards that are earned can help.”

In a response to my last column, Rocki Shepard, a longtime youth soccer coach in Cedar Rapids, wrote that, “In my 30-plus years of coaching both boys and girls …. my opinion is participation medals are a waste of money and they send kids the wrong message.

“I would have kids yelling about wanting a medal even before the first kick off …. The message we are sending our youth is this — no need to try, no need to win, just show up and we will give you a prize and tell you how awesome you are. Giving participation medals is nothing more than giving parents an out on parenting.

“It’s the responsibility of a parent to tell their child they did a good job but just came up short. Maybe they even have to tell their child that they could have played harder, practiced more but even with doing all that, sometimes we just don’t win no matter how hard we try. That’s called life and kids need to learn that at a young age.

“Parents are not parenting anymore. They want to be friends with their kids, not their parents … Our kids are struggling. Maybe it’s time we look at how we are raising our kids and what messages we are sending them at a very early age. Maybe participation medals is a good place to start.”

I tend to agree with Bowen in giving some kind of award for a reason.

“On my softball and baseball teams, I gave the game ball to the player who made the outstanding defensive play in the game,” he said. “I awarded sports cards to the player who hustled the most during the game. They will get a ball if they make a play.

“After all, an award is not really an award if everyone gets it.”

l Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications. Let her know what you think at

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