Grappling with the controversy over everybody getting a trophy

The tired debate about participation trophies in youth sports flares up pretty regularly, now fanned to a damaging degree by social media. You know the argument: The everybody-gets-a-trophy ethos in youth sports has created a bunch of soft, worthless and weak kids.

They’ll never grow up with the wherewithal to be WINNERS. What kind of values are we teaching them? How will they be equipped to handle adult life and the zero-sum reality of professional advancement that comes from beating out your competitor for a sale, or besting a colleague for a promotion?

I was thinking of this recently while watching my son get pummeled during a wrestling match.

I have two sons, ages 10 and 8, and both are wrestling this winter for the first time. They recently competed in a tournament, three matches apiece in a round-robin format. And my 10-year-old got dominated in pretty much every match, as he’d be the first to tell you. It’s been a theme this season.

At his age, he’s wrestling kids with three, sometimes four years of experience. So, while his mind is willing, his body is not yet able. Any move he tries so far this season is decidedly rudimentary and gets countered, resulting in a sudden and distinct mat disadvantage and possible bodily harm. He’s been poked in the eye, had his nose bloodied, and literally had the air squeezed out of his lungs by an opponent who locked him up in a textbook cradle.

It’s been hard to watch. But as he has said with his typical good humor, “I’m getting manhandled out there!”

After his second defeat in this particular tournament, however, his positive attitude was at an ebb. He was feeling defeated, probably a bit embarrassed. If I’d given him the option, he would have likely packed his things and quietly walked out of the gym.

Instead, he wrestled his third match of the day. While close to getting pinned in each round, he competed, notched a few points, and went the whole three minutes. He overcame his fear and put himself out there.

As he put away his head gear and changed out of his wrestling shoes — and as I breathed a sigh of relief that I was getting him to the car and back home in one piece — a fellow competitor ran up into the stands to tell him to pick up his medal at the check-in table. It was the same kid who was mauling him just a few minutes earlier, the one who finished in first place. Yes, my kid got a medal for finishing last, but he also got a much-needed feeling of athletic affirmation and the confidence boost to keep competing.

What exactly is so bad about that again? Because every kid getting a trophy is far, far down the list of things that ails youth sports these days.

Rob Terry


About Rob Terry

Rob Terry was a reporter and editor for 20 years. He’s the father of three (a 13-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 10 and 8) and lives in Columbia.

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