NFL linebacker to return his sons’ participation trophies


This is awesome. NFL linebacker James Harrison posted on Instagram that his sons won “participation trophies” for doing nothing and that he was returning them. His message is equally awesome:

I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy. #harrisonfamilyvalues

I remember getting participation trophies when I was in Little League and junior soccer. I sucked at both sports and I knew it, but I got a trophy each season, regardless of how poorly our team did. Those trophies meant nothing to me. They were a complete waste of plastic.

A few weeks back, HBO did a special on this trend:

Here is an interview with the guy who put that together:

I absolutely agree with James Harrison, and I absolutely agree with Bernard Goldberg. The reality is that kids know. They know who the strongest athletes are, and they know who won and who lost. It’s natural; they know this whether we make a big deal of it or not. Participation trophies are given on the basis of showing up, and real life doesn’t work that way. Certainly showing up is the most important first step, but it never ends there. Giving participation trophies is a way of sheltering kids from the pain of losing. The problem is that learning how to lose is an important part of development, AS IMPORTANT as learning how to win. Over a career, no matter what you do and how well you do it, you’re almost always going to lose more often than you win. You need to learn how to lose in order to win. (I think that may have been a quote from Enter the Dragon, but I’m not sure.)

I remember the first time my son failed to get a trophy in a chess tournament. He was seven years old and had placed high enough in his first three tournaments to at least get something, and on tournament four, he only won one game and came in third. (It was a four-person quad that only gave prizes for the top two places.) He said to the Tournament Director, “Why didn’t I get a trophy?” and the TD said, “You came in third.” He said, “Shouldn’t I still get a trophy?” and the TD said, “Next time make better moves.” He cried on the ride back home, but I told him, “Hey, the TD is right. You didn’t make the right moves.” He said it wasn’t fair, but I asked him, “What wasn’t fair about it?” He had no answer. As James Harrison said, my son HAD done his best, but it wasn’t good enough. He had to do better if he wanted better results.

Over the next few months, he had the same reaction whenever he placed below the trophy threshold. I admit I was getting tired of hearing about it. The cycle was becoming hard–he’d be elated when he won, and he’d be angry when he lost. Overall he was clearly doing well–after only a month or two, he entered the top 10 of Oregon soon-to-be-second-graders–but the way the tournaments were organized, they would reward his success by pitting him against older and stronger competition, and of course he’d lose.

As a father, I had my doubts about whether or not this was good for my son. But overall, his rating continued to improve, and he seemed to take lots of joy in the victories and kept asking to do more tournaments. So we continued.

Finally, we ended up in a big tournament where his rating had shot up so high that he spent almost the entire tournament playing really big kids. He got crushed. I think he won maybe 2 out of 5 games, losing to a high school senior, a high school junior, and an eighth grader. It really wasn’t bad for a second-grader who had only been competing for four months, but he wasn’t happy at all. He left empty-handed since he didn’t even get an even score (2.5 out of 5 or better). On the ride home, he shouted, “It’s not fair! I didn’t get a trophy! And why did I have to play such big kids?”

Exasperated after hearing this for the umpteenth time, I said, “You know what? If you want a trophy, I’ll buy you one. I’ll go to the store and pick one up. I’ll even print your name on it.”

He shouted, “You don’t buy trophies! You earn them!”

I said, “No, you can buy them. You want me to buy you one?”

He said, “No, I want to earn one!”

I said, “Well then you have to make better moves.”

He said, “But they put me against big kids. Where were the second graders?”

I said, “The other second graders were in the lower sections. They’re a couple hundred rating points below you. They do that to protect the other second graders from you so that they too can have a good time. But you know what? If you want, I’ll put you in a beginners tournament where you’ll have second graders all over the place. They won’t even know how to move the pieces, so you can beat the snot out of them. Is that what you want?”

He said, “No, I want to play good second graders!”

I would’ve done all that just to make a point. I would’ve taken him to a trophy store, and I would’ve sat stoically while he got called up on stage for a perfect score against kids who were just learning to move the pieces. Of course I knew I wouldn’t have to.

My point is that competition is normal and natural for kids. My son, although only 7 at the time, knew that he was supposed to be playing kids at his level rather than kids at his age. He knew it was wrong and unfair for him to beat up kids with less training. He knew that trophies that you buy are meaningless. Trophies signify victories, and if there are no victories behind a trophy, the trophy means nothing. I can’t say that losing never has consequences–I unfortunately know of kids who’ve been wrecked by losses in chess and other sports–but I’m fairly confident that my son is on the right path.

At the end of the chess season this year, he was the #2 third-grader in the state. He clearly still has room for improvement (he’s not #1, and he still has some unsettled business with some of his rivals), but I think chess has already taught him lots about competition and about life. He’s got a number of first place trophies in his room, but his favorite “trophy” is actually just a simple even-score medal that he earned earlier this past school year–it was a tournament in which he didn’t even place. He treasures this particular medal because it was his prize for a tournament in which he defeated two long-standing rivals in back-to-back rounds whom he had previously thought to be unbeatable–both had kicked his ass in 25 moves or less at earlier tournaments. One was a State Champion, and the other was a State Champion runner-up. All three boys happened to play well on that day, so there were no gifts/free wins. He played strong, attacking chess that day, chasing his both of his opponents’ kings into a brutally complicated middlegame and then into an endgame. It remains his best performance to date. No bought-trophy or participation-trophy can replace a trophy or medal that actually signifies a real personal achievement.

To wrap up this long-winded post, if we give trophies for everything, we deprive kids of their natural love of competition and achievement. We deprive them of life lessons that will be helpful later in life, but we also deprive them of experiences that are meaningful even now. James Harrison is absolutely right to return those trophies.

One thought on “NFL linebacker to return his sons’ participation trophies

  1. This is a kind of mindset that every parent should have. It would be devastating for kids, feeling they’re not worthy enough, but those are growing pain, the pain that makes you stand up confidently through ups and downs in life.

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