You’ve heard the story: Young people got “participation trophies” as kids, and it taught them to be entitled, lazy workers. But here’s what you haven’t heard: Participation trophies are 100 years old, and for most of that time, they were considered a good thing. Here’s the real story of how these trophies became villainized… and what their actual impact is.
Jason Feifer: This is Build for Tomorrow, a podcast about the things from history that shaped us and how we can shape the future. I'm Jason Feifer. Have you heard about participation trophies? I'm sure that you have. I mean, the participation trophy and its corrupting influence on a generation of children is a story that we have been collectively telling ourselves for decades.
Jason Feifer: But just in case it is new to you, here are the basics. In youth sports today, every kid gets a trophy. It doesn't matter if they win or lose doesn't matter if they tried hard or not at the end of each season, or whatever, they get a trophy. A trophy for participating. And this teaches kids a very harmful lesson. Because I mean, if a kid learns that winners and losers are both rewarded with a trophy, well, then what incentive does anyone have to work hard? Why bother trying to win if the outcome is the same? And if that is the lesson that you learn at a young age, then as you get older you will start applying that lesson more broadly. In relationships, in your career, and so on.
Jason Feifer: It is a lesson of entitlement, and I deserve this just because I showed up. So anyway, that is the story of the participation trophy. And here's how it sounds in real life.
Jeff Walz: You finish last you come out with a trophy. You kidding me? I mean, what's that teaching kids? It's okay to lose. And unfortunately, it's our society. It's what we're building for. And it's not just in basketball, it's in life.
Jason Feifer: That is Jeff Walz, the women's basketball coach at the University of Louisville. After losing a heartbreaker of a game in 2016, he gave a postgame press conference that turned into a lecture about participation trophies.
Jeff Walz: I'm trying to explain to our kids like, hey, I'm trying to prepare you for the real world. Because when you go to get a job, there's competition. And what are you going to do stand out. But unfortunately, we're not preparing these kids, before they get to us at least, to be ready for that.
Jason Feifer: And you don't just hear about this in sports. Here is talk show host Steve Harvey, who is equally concerned.
Voice Clip (Steve Harvey): Now they got these things called participation trophies, where if your child just participates he gets a trophy for just showing up. But kids need to know that when you grow up you ain't going to get no trophy.
Jason Feifer: And here's ABC Action News of Tampa Bay, Florida, reporting on how the majority of Americans feel about participation trophies.
Voice Clip (ABC Action News of Tampa Bay): Causing a lot of controversy across the country this week, should all kids who participate in a sporting event get a trophy or only the kids who win? Well, a poll just recently released from Reason-Rupe found that 57% of Americans feel that only winning players should get a trophy.
Jason Feifer: Why is this such a hot subject? I think the answer is because participation trophies seem to explain, at such a simple level, so many problems that are associated with younger generations. For example, why are millennials entitled and why do they expect great, well paying jobs that are working hard for them? And then why do they expect constant raises and promotions? That is the stereotype. And you can hear it just casually tossed around everywhere as truth. Like when the writer Simon Sinek unloaded on millennials on the show Impact Theory, which then went super viral.
Voice Clip (Simon Sinek): They were told that they were special all the time. They were told that they can have anything they want in life, just because they want it.
Jason Feifer: In other words, participation trophies have created a generation of entitlement. Give me my trophy because at least I showed up. And look, maybe you believe this and maybe you don't. Maybe you think participation trophies are a problem. Maybe you think the whole thing is overblown. But either way, I guarantee that you have accepted a key portion of this story without ever questioning it.
Jason Feifer: You, me, everyone, we never thought to look closer at a key element of the story. In fact, it is the fundamental element of this story. So fundamental that if it were proven wrong, the whole thing falls apart. And crazy enough, it is the element of the story that is easiest to fact check. Because it is really the only part of the story based on documented evidence. You want to know what I'm talking about? Well, you can hear it from that anchor on ABC Action News, Tampa Bay.
Voice Clip (ABC Action News of Tampa Bay): I actually think we have like a lost generation that can't cope with losing.
Jason Feifer: And now let's go back to Jeff Walz of the University of Louisville.
Jeff Walz: The generation of kids that are coming through...
Jason Feifer: You catching this? Here it is with Steve Harvey?
Voice Clip (Steve Harvey): Now these things called participation trophies.
Jason Feifer: The part of the story that goes unquestioned is the part of the story where they say now. They say this generation. They say today. And I don't know about you, but I never thought to question this because I mean, participation trophies seem so right now. Helicopter parents, generational tensions in the workplace. We're told over and over again that younger people are softer than previous gen and that we didn't see as much hardship as those generations and on and on. So of course, participation trophies must be a product of now. But then I found something that blew my mind. Here is an article from the Evening Independent of Massillon, Ohio from 1922. The headline was "Many trophies for tossers in state tourney." And the story said...
Voice Clip (Evening Independent of Massillon): "Trophies galore will be offered for the Second Annual Ohio State invitation high school basketball tournament. Members of the victorious outfits will be given individual trophies. A participation trophy will also be given to each athlete playing in the series."
Jason Feifer: And in 1924, the University of Minnesota created a 30 inch Sterling participation trophy, which would go to the student who had the highest number of what they called participation points, whatever that is. This was described in a glowing article in the Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin.
Voice Clip (The Capital Times of Madison, Wisc.): "For the first time in the history of the University of Minnesota intramural sports will be handled in a manner which should create more interest in athletics than ever before."
Jason Feifer: And stuff like this goes on for decades. During World War Two, for example, military bases they handed out participation trophies. In 1955 The Ithaca Journal of New York reported on a new trophy being given out at the Small Fry Football Loop program.
Voice Clip (Ithica Journal of New York): "Besides the championship trophy the Interfraternity Council is putting up a participation trophy this year. It will be awarded to the team that uses the greatest number of players per game for the season."
Jason Feifer: The greatest number of players. Just round up a bunch of warm bodies and throw them on the field and you win. Anyway, massive shout out to Stefan Fatsis at Slate who collected those examples and more into an article called We've Been Handing Out Participation Trophies for 100 Years. When I read it my mind started racing. I felt like I was at the end of The Usual Suspects you know just information snapping together, the lies all revealing themselves. Because now statements like this just sound so different.
Jeff Walz: You finished last, you come away with a trophy. You kidding me? I mean, what's that teaching kids? It's okay to lose. And unfortunately, it's our society. It's what we're building for. And it's not just in basketball, it's in life.
Jason Feifer: That statement from Jeff Walz contains a three step assumption. He is saying number one, this generations attitudes towards life are different from yesterday's generations. And number two, the participation trophy is a new thing which is taught this new attitude. And number three, therefore, the participation trophy is the cause of the problem. But okay, now we know something that Jeff Walz and Steve Harvey, and ABC Action News of Tampa Bay and sniffling, self-important self-help writer Simon Sinek either do not know or are willfully ignorant of. And that is this, the participation trophy is old. It is so old that the quote unquote greatest generation in America got participation trophies.
Jason Feifer: So if they got participation trophies, and if they are a model that critics of today's youth are holding up by comparison, that we have some revising of history to do here. Either yesterday's generation, were just also a bunch of lazy bastards, or participation trophies are actually just fine, or both.
Jason Feifer: On this episode of Build for Tomorrow, we are going to figure out what the real answer to that question is. Yes, we will talk to child psychologists and experts in youth sports. And yes, we will also talk to real live people who got participation trophies instead of just speaking for them, like everyone you just heard did.
Jason Feifer: But to start, we will go back in time to the beginning of youth sports, and we will discover the surprising but also totally rational origins of the participation trophy. And at the end of it all, we will have a much better understanding of what motivates us and what doesn't, and why the world just is not as simple as we'd like it to be. Ready for all that? It's like a trophy, isn't it? It's all coming up after the break.
Jason Feifer: All right, we are back. Like I said, on this episode of Build for Tomorrow, we are breaking down the myth of the participation trophy. People today talk about participation trophies as if they are a very new thing, and therefore that they shaped a new generation in a new and dangerous way. But that is not true.
Jason Feifer: The participation trophy has been around for generations. So in our quest to understand what is going on, let us start with this question. Where did the participation trophy come from? To answer that we actually need to ask a more fundamental question, which is where did youth sports come from? Kids, of course, have been playing games in one form or another for all of known history. But the idea of actually organizing kids into teams and leagues, which is the kind of thing that adults do to create structure for these kids games. Well, that is actually relatively new.
Jason Feifer: It happened because of a whole mix of big complicated social changes. And now I'm going to mostly summarize the work of historian David K Wiggins here, whose studies of youth sports are cited by basically every other paper I found. So, okay, if you want to know the starting point for youth sports, you might as well start with the 1820s.
Jason Feifer: Industrialization had come to America and people were starting to leave their agricultural roots and join the urban core. The rise of new technologies, as well as the steady arrival of immigrants started to break America's puritanical culture, which had frowned upon a lot of sports and child's play. And this opened the door for a very different philosophy, something called muscular Christianity.
Voice Clip (Macho Man): Oh yeah.
Jason Feifer: It was a philosophy that had come over from England and it tied religious and patriotic duty together with self sacrifice and manliness and physical discipline. So as you might imagine, the muscular Christianity guys had a lot of very lofty things to say about sports. For example, here is the writer Charles Kingsley in a book called health and education in 1874.
Voice Clip (Charles Kinglsey): Games conduce, not merely to physical but to moral health. That in the playing field, boys acquire virtues, which no books can give them, not merely daring and endurance, but better still, temper, self-restraint, fairness, honor, an envious approbation of another's success, and all that given take of life which stand a man in such good stead when he goes forth into the world.
Jason Feifer: It's so interesting to hear that because, I mean, that is still basically how we talk about sports today., we see the games as a metaphor and a constant training ground for life. In fact, we literally just heard the same ideas expressed by University of Louisville Coach Jeff Walz in his rant against participation trophies.
Jeff Walz: I'm trying to explain to our kids like, hey, I'm trying to prepare you for the real world.
Jason Feifer: So okay, America has a new economy and a new philosophy. Now it's about to get a new influx of casual sports fans. Adults really come first, the industrial revolution had increased worker productivity and pay, which meant people had more free time and money to spend. Some would spend it playing sports or enjoying sports as a spectator with say, professional baseball, which appeared in the late 1800s. And next, here come the children. Because by 1910, there were 2 million kids under the age of 15 working in what came to be considered child slavery.
Voice Clip ("An act!"): An act to prevent interstate commerce and the products of child labor and for other purposes.
Jason Feifer: That is the first line of the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916, which made child labor illegal in America. It got struck down by the Supreme Court, and it would take another two decades for an actual law against child labor to stick. But it signaled the beginning of the end and child labor began to shrink.
Jason Feifer: Meanwhile, America was slowly but surely making school mandatory. Massachusetts was the first state to mandate that kids went to school in 1852. Mississippi was the last in 1917. And once that happened, people had to think very differently about how they spent their time. Kids now had designated to school time and free time. And what would kids do with free time?
Jason Feifer: Well, parents didn't trust kids to play unsupervised, so organized sports became a good solution. This was originally driven by schools. For example, in 1903, New York's public school system created the New York City Public School Athletic League for Boys, many other cities and states followed. And within the first few decades of the 1900s, we get the beginning of youth sports as we know it. But a few other important changes are going to happen and they directly relate to the participation trophy.
Jason Feifer: So here is where it gets really interesting. Consider the scene, you've got kids who need to be entertained and sports are offered as a solution. And that is great until, well, we know what happens with sports. It can get intense, children and parents become overly competitive and start orienting their entire lives around these competitions. And by the time youth sports are really an established thing, which happens just around and after World War One, Americans have become kind of exhausted by competition.
Shaun Scott: So much of the American ethos was oriented around getting people conscripted into the war effort, where there are literally life and death stakes to competition, you can imagine why there would be a cultural response that says, maybe we don't need to double down on that right now.
Jason Feifer: This is Shaun Scott.
Shaun Scott: I am a writer and organizer and author of the book Millennials And the Moments that Made Us: A Cultural History of the US from 1982 to the Present.
Jason Feifer: So people are now looking at these youth sports leagues that they had built in their thinking, is this really what we want to be teaching our kids? Is all this competition and physical strain actually healthy? Many people decide that the answer is no. By the late 1920s, and into the 1930s, a movement against youth sports starts taking place. Major youth sports advocates start turning against it and schools start to cancel their sports programs.
Jason Feifer: For example, in 1933, Cleveland moved to ban all competitive athletics in junior high. The school system's physical welfare director explained it to the local newspaper like this: Voice Clip (Physical welfare director): "It has been found that boys who take part in athletics on a competitive basis do not grow as much or as rapidly as boys who do not play on the school teams."
Jason Feifer: This became a common theme that sports were actually bad for you. Here's the Associated Press in 1931.
Voice Clip (Associated Press in 1931): "College youths recklessly exerting themselves in competitive sports for the glory of their alma mater, may unwittingly caused themselves great bodily harm."
Jason Feifer: But of course, people are not going to just stop playing sports. One newspaper, The South Bend Tribune of Indiana wrote in 1926, about the state banning football and described the result as quote, "Like capping Mount Vesuvius or stopping the flow of Old Faithful." End quote. Which is to say it's a mass. I mean, water would just start shooting out in every direction.
Jason Feifer: And so in Indiana, the ban on football just meant that kids became obsessed with basketball. So now the question became if kids are going to keep playing sports, how do you make it safe for them? How do you keep them entertained, but remove the harmful competition and physical exhaustion?
Jason Feifer: The answer to that question started to become, well, you can hear it in this letter to the editor of a Wichita, Kansas newspaper in 1928.
Voice Clip (editor of a Wichita, KS, newspaper): If it cannot be done for the pure sport of the game, there is no excuse for its existence.
Jason Feifer: It's the love of the game. It's the theme that professional sports leagues still hammer home today as a way of framing the game as pure and not the gigantic business that it is. Like here's this NBA on TNT commercial from a few years ago featuring stars like Kevin Garnett, and Chris Bosh.
Speaker 16: My love for the game, I don't think can be measured, man.
Speaker 17: I love playing basketball.
Speaker 18: I love everything about the game.
Speaker 19: [crosstalk 00:18:20]
Jason Feifer: So a quick recap. The law says children cannot work and that they must go to school. Parents wonder what to do with kids when school is done. So schools create youth sports leagues. Then youth sports leagues become concerning hotbeds of competition, and some schools start to shut the leagues down.
Jason Feifer: But kids are not going to stop playing sports. And what happens next? Two things. First, now there is a business opportunity. Private leagues start to form like little league in 1939 to fill the hole left by schools that eliminated their sports programs. And then the second thing is, these organizations needed some kind of reward system, some way to emphasize the pure love of the game and not the dirty competition.
Jason Feifer: So what would you say is a good way to reward kids for playing but without emphasizing winners and losers? How could you just I don't know reward them for participating? And if you guessed the answer is participation trophies, you get a trophy. If you get something else set, don't worry, you still get a trophy.
Jason Feifer: So here we are. Here is the participation trophy, the product of a century long unfolding of events and massive social and economic shifts. Today we have this romantic idea of the past where people understood the stakes in life and that there were winners and losers and you better not be a loser. But our forefathers were the ones that were first concerned about competition, not us. Participation trophies would become a staple of sports for a very long time. Things really picked up in the 1950s and particularly in the 60s and 70s, because the culture of that time started to have some familiar thoughts.
Dan Gould: At that time a lot of people and parents became overly concerned with the effects of competition on kids.
Jason Feifer: That is Dan Gould, the director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports and a professor in student athlete development at Michigan State. And he says that in the 50s through 70s, people became obsessed with this idea of self esteem and self worth. They started wondering, what can we do to build a better sense of self? And parents took that challenge very seriously.
Dan Gould: How are we going to build kids self worth? And giving everybody a participation trophy would build their self worth.
Jason Feifer: So okay, think of it. You've got all of these people like Jeff Walz and Steve Harvey, and Simon Sinek, and that anchor from ABC Action News, and they're all saying things like "The kids today," and, "This generation," and "Today's society." And yet these bozos have no idea that their own youth leagues had participation trophies. And maybe, I don't know, maybe they don't remember that because the trophies weren't actually that big of a deal. But we will get to that later. Let's stay with history for a moment.
Jason Feifer: Now we know where the participation trophy came from. So the next thing to ask is when and why did people turn against it? Now, I'm not sure it's possible to pinpoint exactly when that moment was, but it seems like the 1990s were the tipping point. Like I said, Stefan Fatsis is at slate did a deep dive into the newspaper archives and found appearances of participation trophies throughout history. And the first example he found of someone using the term negatively was in 1993 in the Minnesota St. Cloud Times. The paper had quoted a local girl softball coach who told a story about what her catcher had said.
Voice Clip (local girl’s softball coach): "[Janelle Girth 00:21:51] told the team that we've got enough participation trophies. Now, we'd like to get a place trophy. That's the goal for these girls."
Jason Feifer: It was all downhill from there. Soon, newspapers around the country were running columns and commentary about how terrible the participation trophy is. By the early 2000s some youth sports leagues, were getting rid of the participation trophy entirely. So I mean, how about that. The participation trophy was with us for a century. But it wasn't until the 1990s, when kids born in the 1980s were entering youth sports programs, that everyone suddenly decided that these things were bad. It is as if we played a very long game of hot potato, and the greatest generation and the silent generation and the baby boomers, and Gen Xers all held the potato and we're like...
Voice Clip (Hot Potatoe): Hot potato, hot potato. Hot potato, hot potato.
Jason Feifer: And then they passed the potato to the millennials. And they said...
Voice Clip (F*ck You): Fuck you, fuck you.
Jason Feifer: And why did that happen? The answer might just be pretty boring.
Shaun Scott: There's a real I don't want to say crisis but a concern among American businesses with respect to how are we going to absorb this generation and maximize frankly, they're producing capability.
Jason Feifer: That is Shaun Scott, again, author of the book Millennials and the Moments that Made Us and he says that prior to millennials, a lot of business management techniques had come out of the World War Two era, they were aggressive and very pointed, and often based on challenging people's personhood.
Shaun Scott: It starts to become clear with portraits that people are doing of the millennial generation, as we're in middle school, in high school in the 90s, that these kinds of management techniques don't really work.
Jason Feifer: And that's not because Millennials are soft and got too many participation trophies, it's just because their cultural context was totally different.
Shaun Scott: We're not a generation that has the immediate experience of having to be conscripted into the military. We're not a generation that was as amenable to certain milestones of adulthood, largely because of the fact that we were born into a dysfunctional economy.
Jason Feifer: Now, let's be clear, books and books and so many boring, boring books have been devoted to pointing out all the differences between different generations. And this minute long analysis of management techniques is not going to capture it all. But I think that Shaun's answer sets up an important broader point. The older generation had a system of incentives that the younger generation did not respond to for a whole host of cultural reasons.
Jason Feifer: And what happens when you do things one way and someone new doesn't understand what you're doing? Well, you rarely question yourself. Instead, you just think the other party is stupid or somehow at fault. But young people are not stupid, and they're not at fault. If you're the older generation, then frankly, you're at fault because you didn't try to keep up with change.
Jason Feifer: One set of incentives is not better than another. Different is not inherently better or worse. Different is just different. So, all right now We know the history of the participation trophy and why millennials were blamed for something that they neither invented nor was invented for them it is time to answer the question that is at the heart of all of these complaints about participation trophies. And that is, of course, are the participation trophies bad? Are they harming kids? Are they setting the wrong example?
Jason Feifer: And here is how we're going to answer this. First, we're going to do something that most people who talk about participation trophies do not do. Jeff Walz didn't do it, Steve Harvey didn't do it, ABC Action News, Tampa Bay, they didn't do it. And that is, well, why don't we hear from some people who actually got participation trophies as a kid? Crazy idea. They're out there. They're living among us, and they can speak for themselves.
Jason Feifer: And then we will turn to a very accomplished child psychologist to ask, what can we learn here? And What lesson do kids really learn from a trophy that isn't about winning? All of that is coming up after the break.
Jason Feifer: Okay, we're back. We have established that participation trophies are a century old and that they came out of a generations long belief that competition is harmful. Now, of course, we think that participation trophies are the thing that's harmful. So let's see if that's true. And we're going to start as promised with two recipients of participation trophies.
Tori Bosch: So my name is Tori Bosch.
Jason Feifer: And also.
Hilary Cressey: My name is Hilary Cressey.
Jason Feifer: And Tori and Hilary have very different experiences with participation trophies. So here's what we're going to do. We're going to hear the beginning of their stories. And then we will turn to an expert in child psychology to understand what is behind these stories. And then we will return to Tori and Hilary to see how it all turned out. And let's start with Tori. When she was a kid in the late 80s and early 90s her parents signed her up for sports.
Tori Bosch: I mean, I just at first remember coming home from t-ball or whatever with like a small shiny object when the season ended. And that seemed pretty cool, I guess.
Jason Feifer: She says she didn't think much about it first, or at least she can't remember thinking much about it. But as she got older and her parents enrolled her in soccer and t-ball and then softball and field hockey and lacrosse, she collected more and more of these small shiny objects. Then she had a revelation. Her brother was also involved in sports and he was also bringing home shiny objects, but his were bigger. So one day she looked closely at his trophies and read what was written on them.
Tori Bosch: It said something like best hitter or best offensive player and I realized like, "Oh, other people get trophies that are sort of specific to their experience and I'm just getting like the same old thing every time."
Jason Feifer: Eventually her trophies started to feel like a failure. They weren't a symbol of success. They were a stand in for whatever she'd have gotten if she actually was a success.
Tori Bosch: And it totally felt like a mockery. My grandparents would come over to visit and of course, I would want to show them my room for whatever seven year old reason kids want to show their grandparents their room. And they would say, "Oh, wow, look at all of those trophies. You must be such a great athlete." And I would just sort of cringe because I knew that those trophies meant worse than nothing.
Jason Feifer: Okay, so Tori's story in brief. The trophies at first were like a nice but meaningless reward, and then they became a source of shame. Next, here is Hilary.
Hilary Cressey: So I have pretty vivid memories actually of getting trophies for both soccer and dance.
Jason Feifer: The dance team was super competitive. They were in a state championship and Hilary remembers it vividly. Driving down there with her mom, the jazz number her team dance to and their sparkly blue leotards and most importantly, winning first place, first place trophy.
Hilary Cressey: It was just such a great feeling. And I remember all the kids on my team, we were all smiling and we were just so happy.
Jason Feifer: But her soccer team was less successful. No first place finishes at the state championship, no big rewards. Instead, just a participation trophy.
Hilary Cressey: There wasn't necessarily like a bad memory of it. It just made me feel like I was everyone else on my team. I didn't feel like special, I didn't feel better. I just felt like I was belonging to something.
Jason Feifer: But you know what? She put the participation trophy up in her room anyway, it didn't feel bad.
Hilary Cressey: Because it just like validates that you're a part of a team and that you came, you played, you tried. So I think not having that would have been worse than actually getting one like everyone else does.
Jason Feifer: So there it is. Two very different experiences. Tori's participation, trophies were a source of shame and Hilary's were received exactly as intended as a symbol that she participated. Now, what can we learn from this? Well, here's what science might say.
Dan Gould: I don't know very many studies that have actually studied kids getting participation trophies versus not. But there are some... A whole line of psychological research on the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation.
Jason Feifer: That's Dan Gould, again, the director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sport at Michigan State University.
Dan Gould: And they kind of show rewards can kind of be a double edged sword. In some cases, they can increase a kid's motivation and other cases decrease it.
Jason Feifer: And sure, incentives are a funny thing. There is a whole field of study called cognitive evaluation theory, which took hold in the 70s and explores how external consequences impact internal motivation. In other words, researchers want to know things like does a reward increase or decrease someone's motivation to complete a task or compete in a challenge. For example, here's a famous study from 1971. Researchers get a bunch of college students and then run them through a little test, a student will be placed in a room with some puzzles and then they're told: Speaker 24: You have an hour to complete these puzzles.
Jason Feifer: But halfway through the instructor says, "Okay, it is break time."
Speaker 24: For the next eight minutes, you can keep playing with the puzzles, or you can read some of these magazines we have laying around.
Jason Feifer: This routine will be repeated once a day over three days. That is the setup of the experiment. Now here is the actual experiment. The students don't know this, but some are in a control group, and some are in what we'll call the money group. In the control group, all three days are exactly the same. Show up, do the puzzles for an hour, a little break in the middle, that's it. But in the money group, things are different. The students show up on the first day and have the same experience as the control group. On the second day, however, the students in the money group are told"
Speaker 24: For every puzzle you complete today, you'll be given $1.
Jason Feifer: which sounds like a good deal. But on the third day, the money group is told: Speaker 24: Sorry, there are no more dollars, but complete the puzzles anyway.
Jason Feifer: Now, the question is this. Will these two groups act differently during their break when they can either play with a puzzle or read a magazine? The answer is yes. On the first day, there is no difference between the groups. On the second day when the students in the money group are getting their dollars they spend significantly more time during their break, practicing puzzles, which makes sense because they want to practice and then make that money.
Jason Feifer: And then on the third day, when the money group goes back to getting no reward the students actually spend significantly less time practicing the puzzle during their break, because now they're just thinking, "What's the point, not getting any money." So in sum, when the money group was being rewarded, it tried harder than the control group. When the money group then lost its reward, it tried less hard than the control group.
Jason Feifer: Conclusion, a reward can alter someone's motivation, for better or for worse. Now, the fuller body of research into rewards and motivation show a pattern that helps explain what we just saw here. And basically, it's this: if a recipient believes that a reward says something good about their own competence and control over a situation that their motivation will increase. If a recipient believes that a reward shows that they actually have a lack of control over the situation, then their motivation will decrease. So that's kind of interesting. Can you apply it to participation trophies?
Dan Gould: If you took that research, it shows that giving people trophies for what they already viewed as sort of intrinsically motivating, won't necessarily increase their motivation, it can actually decrease it if they feel like they're getting bought.
Jason Feifer: Now, to be clear, Dan isn't claiming this is true. He's just explaining how you might connect the data to the debate about participation trophies, but there is another way of looking at it.
Ken Barish: By 13 kids don't want participation trophies.
Jason Feifer: This is Ken
Ken Barish: My name is Ken Barish. I'm a clinical professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College. I'm also on the faculty of the Westchester Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, and the William Alanson White Institute, Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy Training Program.
Jason Feifer: And Ken's point here is simple but profound. Because okay, yeah, rewards can impact behavior and motivation. But what if it's a reward that nobody wants? Because when kids are old enough to understand winning and losing the participation trophy becomes meaningless.
Ken Barish: That's one of the reasons I think that they don't have the danger that people assign to them. By 13. To be a little bit glib about this, kids know that only one team wins the Super Bowl, and only one team wins the World Series. So they don't want a trophy for participation. It doesn't mean anything to them anymore.
Jason Feifer: Now, when kids are younger, Ken says that the participation trophy does mean something to them. But he thinks that's a good thing. You want kids to participate in team activities. You want them to be involved, where they can learn important lessons about teamwork and following rules and putting in effort.
Ken Barish: When kids are young they're kids, and we should reward them for participating. So when you give a kid a trophy for participation, you've encouraged participation, which is what you want.
Jason Feifer: And let me be clear, Ken has worked with children and families for over three decades and teaches postgraduate classes in adolescent development and child psychotherapy. And in his expert opinion, this basically sums the whole thing up. Participation trophies help younger kids participate, which is good. Participation trophies are stupid to older kids, which means that they don't impact these kids decisions. And that is the story.
Ken Barish: I personally think that the whole controversy about participation trophies has taken on more importance than it deserves.
Jason Feifer: So now with that in mind, I want to apply what we just learned about Tori and Hilary our participation trophy recipients. Let's see how they turned out. First, there was Tori, remember her parents enrolled her in a lot of sports and at first she was happy with participation trophies. But as she got older, she started comparing these trophies to her brother's trophies, which were bigger and for specific accomplishments. Tori didn't earn anything like that. And it made her feel bad.
Tori Bosch: It was like a trophy to my mediocrity, not like a trophy toward some actual accomplishment.
Jason Feifer: But here's something I didn't tell you about before. You know what also was happening at the same time as she started to feel sour about her participation trophies.
Tori Bosch: I think that my changing thought about the trophies really dovetailed with how I started to realize that I was a really crappy athlete, and that I really, really hated sports and competitive sports, especially.
Jason Feifer: When Tori was younger. She didn't know that. No kid knows that. The point isn't to be good or bad. The point is just to participate. But as time went on, well, her brother became a great and enthusiastic athlete and was rewarded for it with lots of cool trophies. And Tori started to figure out what she was great at, and it wasn't sports. So she came to resent the trophies.
Tori Bosch: It was just reminding me that I was a terrible athlete, that my teammates probably hated me, that my father was disappointed in me. So why not just make myself suffer during practice and games rather than having to look at them when I'm at home just trying to read a book, which is all I wanted to do with my time.
Jason Feifer: But that last thing she said there is so important. She wanted to read. She didn't get trophies for reading, but she didn't care. She just wanted to focus on what she enjoyed doing and what she found rewarding and what she excelled at. All right, next, a little more about Hilary's story. Remember, she got a big first place trophy in dance, which she loved and then got a bunch of participation trophies for soccer, which she was fine with.
Hilary Cressey: It just made me feel like I was everyone else on my team. I didn't feel like special, I didn't feel better. I just felt like I was belonging to something.
Jason Feifer: Now, here's what else is worth knowing about her story. First of all, much like Tori developed a self awareness about her strengths and weaknesses, Hilary did that too.
Hilary Cressey: I kind of knew my place on the team that I was like, pretty average at soccer. I wasn't the best player and I was never recognized as one of the best people on the team. But I also was part of the team. So yeah, I just felt like I had a place on the team.
Jason Feifer: And when Hilary looks back on this now, she sees something that shaped her, though not in the way that a participation trophy critic might think. Jeff Walz or Steve Harvey might say that these trophies made Hilary weak, like she wouldn't try hard because she was taught that winning is the same as losing. But no. Instead, Hilary says she learned that she likes working hard and likes the recognition that comes with it.
Hilary Cressey: I do think it affected me outside of sports. Because I do find the validation in the recognition very important, whether it's like, some challenge that I'm doing or something at work or something with my friends getting that recognition is important to me, because it helps fuel me to keep going and do what I want to do to accomplish my goal. So if no one said anything, I feel like I just wouldn't push myself and I wouldn't maximize the situation.
Jason Feifer: And this is interesting to me. Because the participation trophy is criticized as being this thing that's really not about recognition. It's almost the opposite of recognition, it's a reward for nothing. But Hilary is framing it differently. Back in her youth soccer days, she knew that she was not a great player. And so she knew that the best thing that she could do for her team was to be part of the team, to support it, to stick things through. And the participation trophy was a recognition of that. She isn't stupid, she knows what winning looks like she got that first place dance trophy.
Jason Feifer: But she also figured out that success can take many forms. That just being a good team member is a kind of success. So two different women, two different experiences of participation trophies, and what became of them? Well, after realizing that she sucked at sports, Tori increasingly embraced what she was good at. She dove into books, she became a reader and a writer and a thinker. And today...
Tori Bosch: I'm the editor of Future Tense, which is a partnership of Slate Magazine, New America and Arizona State University, and we cover the future.
Jason Feifer: And Hilary, well, she had a competitiveness and a love of sports as a kid and retain to that as she got older. And yet, she also developed a clear eyed understanding of what she's good at and what she's not, as well as what motivates her towards greatness in her own field. And today...
Hilary Cressey: I work in product at Nike.
Jason Feifer: In short, they are both successful, and they pursued paths that were very much their own despite having both received participation trophies. The world is unpredictable, it is impossible for us to know how one thing impacts another. But we, and here I speak generally, as in all of us, the royal we don't like unpredictability. It makes us uncomfortable, not knowing what will happen next, or how to control our lives, or how to shape our kids lives. And so we often reject the premise entirely.
Jason Feifer: We say "No, no, no, no, no, the world is very predictable. A leads directly to B, which leads directly to C. I can point at this one thing over here and know exactly how it will impact that one thing over there." And this, I think, is how we end up with debates like participation trophies. Because if the world is totally understandable than fixing it is easy. And oh, how appealing that is, how comfortable and rewarding that is. We can identify bad things and then backtrack to their origins and then eliminate those bad seeds. Simple as that. And isn't that what Jeff Walz wants us to do?
Jeff Walz: What's that teaching kids? It's okay to lose. And unfortunately, it's our society. It's what we're building for. And it's not just in basketball, it's in life.
Jason Feifer: But what if that's not true? I mean, actually, let me rephrase that. It isn't true. I am flat out telling you it isn't true. The real truth is to paraphrase Walt Whitman, "We contain multitudes." External things influence us but we also influence external things. One person's insulting participation trophy is another person's satisfying reward. In the case of Tori and Hilary, I would argue that we're hearing the stories of two very different women who grew up, learned about themselves and then their self understandings shaped how they felt about the trophy. The participation trophy didn't singularly shape them. A world of things shaped them and they also shaped themselves and that is the reality of life and then a little tiny part of that was reflected off the participation trophy's, tiny, shiny surface.
Jason Feifer: What is the true lesson of the participation trophy? It is this: winning happens in many ways, and it always has and it always will. And if you think that a stupid, little trophy has anything to do with any of this, well, then I guess I will give you a participation trophy for trying, but it doesn't mean much. And that's our episode.
Jason Feifer: Here's a fun question, who would win a trophy for the most dramatic opposition to participation trophies? I have a strong contender and I will share it right after I tell you this. If you liked this podcast then please subscribe and tell a friend and sign up for my newsletter which is all about how to find opportunity and change. You can get it by going to Jasonfeifer.com. If you'd like to get in touch just follow me on Twitter or Instagram I am @Heyfeifer H-E-Y-F-E-I-F-E-R. DM me, I promise I will reply.
Jason Feifer: This episode was written by me, Jason Feifer and reported by Britta Lokting and me. Sound Editing by Alec Bayless. Our theme music is by Casper Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. The actors you heard in this episode were Gia Mora. You can find her at GiaMora.com and Brent Rose. You can find him at Brentrose.com.
Jason Feifer: Thanks to everyone who heard in this episode and another shout out to Stefan Fatsis at Slate for the article that inspired this episode. I also learned a lot from an article in The Atlantic called When Did Competitive Sports take over American childhood by Hilary Levey Friedman.
Jason Feifer: This show is supported in part by the Charles Koch Institute. The Charles Koch Institute believes that advances in technology have transformed society for the better and is looking to support scholars, policy experts, and other projects and creators who focus on embracing innovation, creating a society that fosters innovation and encouraging people to engineer the next great idea.
Jason Feifer: If that is you then get in touch with them. Proposals for projects in law, economics, history, political science and philosophy are encouraged. To learn more about their partnership criteria visit cki.org. That again, is cki.org. All right. Now, as promised, here is the story of someone who really went the extra mile in opposing participation trophies.
Jason Feifer: Back in 2015, Pittsburgh Steelers, linebacker James Harrison came home one day and discovered that his little boys who were five and seven years old, then, had been given participation trophies, and he and his wife agreed these trophies would have to be given back. So then James goes and talks to his sons.
Voice Clip (James Harrison): So I'll pull him in, sit down, talk to them, explain to them I'm proud for the effort that they gave. But these trophies are going back until you earn real trophies.
Jason Feifer: That is James Harrison. When he went on, wouldn't you know it, the Steve Harvey show. So anyway, then off went the trophies.
Voice Clip (James Harrison): Take them back to the coach's house, knock on the door. And nobody asked me so I just leave them on the porch.
Jason Feifer: Then James posted about it on Instagram where it went viral. So what do we think? Is this the most dramatic response to a participation trophy? Does James get the trophy? Or does he just get a participation trophy? Well, I don't know, I'll leave it to you to decide. That is it for this episode. Thanks for listening. I am Jason Feifer. Let's keep building for tomorrow.
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