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Trophy Atrophy

They’re the first things you see when you enter my son’s room, and the only things he packed when a wildfire neared our home.

They’re 10 golden, gleaming trophies, each touting him as a “winner” at T-ball, soccer, basketball. The most recent is a pewter mega-monument he earned playing football — on a team that lost every game by about 30 points.

While certainly a winner in my book, the kid has never once been on a championship team. Or even a mediocre one. Still, he has received more trophies than birthday cakes in his life. And he’s not alone.

Mini-athletes get trophies these days just for showing up. They’re de rigeur, as much a part of kids’ sports now as Gatorade and ghastly, costly team photos. At the end-of-season pizza party (also a given), every team member gets a sizable statuette on an engraved pedestal. Play-off teams probably get bigger ones; ahem, I, wouldn’t know.

“Claire got a soccer trophy even though she sat on her fanny and cried through every practice,” says a mom I know.

What’s the cost of being so generous with awards that were once reserved for the best of the best? Are we championing mediocrity? Will our kids expect “atta boys” for everything they do?

“There is a definite shift toward an ‘everybody wins’ attitude in sports these days,” says a local dad. “It’s good and bad.” Getting a trophy was his five-year-old daughter’s favorite part of her first soccer season — which explains why, at the start of the next season, she came off the field asking, “Where’s my trophy?”

Trophy inflation seems to have started with the self-esteem movement of the 1980s, when pop psychology convinced us that “effort” matters more than “success.” Some called this progress; others deemed it hogwash.

“I abhor awarding trophies willy-nilly,” says a soccer, basketball, and baseball coach. “I have strong suspicions the trophy industry is behind the ‘trophies for everyone’ tradition.” An outrageous accusation? Perhaps. “I suspect the Trophy-Industrial Complex is behind the subprime debacle, as well.”

In real life, loss comes frequently — elections, jobs, relationships — and it forces us to reassess our performance and try harder next time. Isn’t it better to let our kids taste disappointment now, when the terms are small, than to “protect” them from it till they’re grown?

A friend of mine who works in human resources says that, as young adults, the “participation trophy generation” exudes a distinct sense of entitlement. “We don’t give merit raises,” she finds herself explaining, “just for doing your job.”

But not everyone is anti-trophy. Proponents say the token effigies bolster kids’ spirits after a brutal season.

“We aren’t rewarding them for not winning,” argues one coach. “We’re rewarding them for showing up regularly, practicing, working as a team, learning the skills and rules of the game, playing through disappointment and pain.”

Well, when you put it like that …

“Kids can be so hard on themselves and feel undeserving even when they played well,” adds my cousin, whose children play up to four sports at a time. “Some kids have uber-competitive parents and a little trophy may be their only positive reinforcement.”

It’s a fair point. It’s not like we’ve stopped scoring the games; kids, it turns out, are keenly aware of the difference between bench-warming trophies and VIP trophies. And while they may treasure a thanks-for-playing memento as a souvenir from an exacting season, they’ll be the first to tell you this: It’s small consolation for failure.

“There are only three trophies I’m really proud of,” says a sensible fifth-grader I know, who has won big in soccer, hoops, and music. “The rest I call ‘loser trophies’ because you get them for losing.

“I actually think they’re a waste of metal.”

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Published inColumnsParenting
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