Best Loser: The Consequences of Our Love of Trophies

Posted August 6, 2015

HBO’s weekly program Real Sports aired an episode last week that featured a segment called Trophy Nation, about America’s desire to give every kid a trophy and tell kids they’re special. The episode isn’t available online yet (except on HBO’s streaming platforms), but give me two minutes and just check out the trailer below:

I can’t really grasp why I need people to pay attention to this so much. I also can’t deny the frustration that builds up inside of me whenever I hear stories like this. As a coach and a teacher, I can speak firsthand to the problems it causes in today’s youth; we need to do whatever is possible to put an end to this trend before it has lasting consequences.

Since so many people in my life are now raising young children, maybe it can start with you (no pressure) because, really, the desire to award everybody for everything starts with the parents. Watch this brief web clip from the same feature:

Parents don’t complain about the trophies because their main concern, and rightfully so, is making sure their child has a happy life. It’s a noble goal, but it absolutely will not be achieved by constantly telling your son/daughter he/she is good at everything or deserves to be rewarded for simply showing up.

I can’t imagine many people in my generation or the one before ever experienced this from their parents, teachers, or coaches. My parents are the most supportive people in the world, and they still had no problem telling me when I was being an idiot or not trying hard enough. I frequently asked my father for feedback during halftime of my basketball games or after at bats in baseball. He never once said, “You haven’t been great so far, but it’s not a problem; you showed up and that’s all that matters.”

My coaches certainly didn’t take that approach either. I was insulted almost as much as I was praised. I had teachers tell me that I spent more time trying to be funny than working and that I wasn’t even particularly funny. The criticism was almost always warranted.

But it didn’t make me hate life or cry in a dark room (that often). Sure, sometimes it hurt my feelings, but then I thought,”Feeling this way sucks,” and remembered what happened that made me feel this way, doing some quick A+B=C and realizing that I just shouldn’t do whatever it was that led to me feeling like crap. Maybe that meant working harder or trying not to make myself the center of attention.

That teacher who told me I wasn’t funny? I still remember her advice more than I do most other pieces I received: “If you think you have a joke to make during class, write it down. If it’s not funny 45 minutes from now then it wasn’t funny in the first place.” That’s damn good advice. I use that with my students now, and it only came because she started by essentially telling me that I was an asshole and kept interrupting her to make asinine comments.

The point is simply that sometimes learning the hard way is truly the best way to learn. Teachers simultaneously tell kids that they can learn from their mistakes and then essentially tell them that they don’t make mistakes. If you screw up, you can learn to be better, but here’s an award for getting a C- and showing up late to half the classes. How does that make any sense?

The problem is that this trend has real, lasting consequences. The Real Sports segment discussed them when it presented a study that showed that an overwhelming amount of current college students believe they deserve a B by simply showing up to all their classes.

Are you serious!? Instead of busting their ass to learn the material, which might actually help them adopt proper work ethic and organizational habits, a large number of kids think that showing up gives them a right to solid results, regardless of the work they put in.

This is a direct consequence of rewarding everybody for merely participating in things. Kids grow up thinking their special because their parents, teachers, and coaches all tell them as much.

For all the criticism of competition, this type of excess praise is equally as damaging. In Ashley Merriman’s NY Times essay called “Losing is Good For You,” she highlights some the reasons why: “Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, found that kids respond positively to praise; they enjoy hearing that they’re talented, smart and so on. But after such praise of their innate abilities, they collapse at the first experience of difficulty. Demoralized by their failure, they say they’d rather cheat than risk failing again.”

This is something I see time and time again on the court or in the classroom. A lot of kids don’t know how to work through adversity. They’ve been rewarded for everything they do, so they simply assume that by trying they’ll do something great. If they don’t do something great they assume the person evaluating them is an idiot or that “this is stupid” and not worth trying.

The world doesn’t work that way, and if parents, educators, and coaches continue to reinforce to kids that it does, they will get eaten up by reality. The real world can suck. It’s not fair. It doesn’t care about your feeling or how hard you try at something. The real world doesn’t guarantee success, and while that may seem like a harsh lesson to teach an 11 or even 16 year-old-kid, it’s a lesson he/she needs to learn.

The job of parents, coaches, educators is to help kids to succeed in life. Not necessarily success from a praise or monetary standpoint, but achieving a life the kid can be proud of; a life in which they’ve made the most of the opportunities presented to them. By constantly rewarding and praising kids, you’re not teaching them the value of working for what they want; they only care about the end result; an end result that they believe they are entitled to simply by being there. In Merryman’s article, she mentions “a furious parent [who] complained to a local reporter, ‘My children look forward to their trophy as much as playing the game.’”

It creates a feeling of entitlement that I’ve written about before and is shockingly pervasive nowadays. As my high school basketball coach said, “I’m tired of this entitlement bullshit.” It doesn’t do anybody any good to assume they should be given something regardless of performance. It’s emblematic of a larger problem within our country that we’re the best simply by being. You’re not worth anything until you’ve shown some evidence to support your belief.

It’s time that we start taking off the proverbial kid gloves and allowing the next generation to fail. It may hurt you to see their tears and frustration, but it’ll hurt you even more when they’re living with you until they’re 40 because they have no work ethic or ability to handle any semblance of failure.

Cut the cord, let them free and see what the world does with them. If they really need you (as a parent, educator, or coach), you’ll be ready to be there from them, but there’s no need to be the bodyguard pushing life aside so they can walk through unharmed.