Trophies are for Winning

Should kids be given trophies for playing sports, even when they don’t win? Are participation trophies a good or bad thing for young athletes? Former Olympian and LA Galaxy soccer star Cobi Jones shares his thoughts.
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Participation trophies.

I’m not a fan.

They’re bad for kids. Bad for parents. Bad for society.

Other than that, they’re okay.

Don’t get me wrong. I love any kind of organized competition for kids. I lived and breathed baseball, basketball, football and soccer growing up. If there was a sport to be played, I played it. And never once did anybody ever tell me that winning was not important or that showing up was all that mattered.

But today, kids get a different message. Losing? No big deal. Showing up? That deserves a trophy. Wow. What an awful thing to tell a kid. Glad my parents or coaches never said it to me. If they had, I’m sure I never would’ve become a pro soccer player.

Let me tell you why.

In high school, I was a good soccer player. I thought I could play soccer in college. Looking back, though, I just wasn’t good enough in those college coaches eyes.

I tried out for the UCLA team as a walk-on. I made it! I was vindicated. I had arrived…on the bench. The coach hardly ever looked at me. I’m not even sure he knew my name. I know he didn’t care about my feelings. I wanted to be a starter, I wanted to be a winner. Shouldn’t I have been satisfied just for making the team? Of course not. That’s absurd.

But isn’t that what kids are told today? You’re a winner. Even if you’re not. Even if you come in last. And we’ll give you a trophy…just for showing up, just for participating.

This belief – that showing up is an accomplishment – is self-destructive. Because the pain of losing is part of what drives one to improve.

The frustration of going to game after game and sitting on the bench drove me nuts. I had to practice more. I had to work harder. Or, I had to give up. And I didn’t want to give up.

This taught me an important lesson: If you don’t put in the work, you won’t get ahead. And not getting ahead? Well, that feels awful. So, put in the work. Or go home.

So, I put in the work. I pushed myself, not to do my best – because who can possibly know what “their best” is? – but to be better. And better.

And one day, my chance came. Coach put me in the game. Not because I wanted so badly to play, but because he needed me. I played well. Well enough to start the next game where I scored a goal, and had an assist. After that I started every game.

The road to victory – in sports, in business, in life – is paved with losses, painful losses. Losses that can hurt so much it’s hard to breathe. Any professional athlete or successful entrepreneur will tell you that’s true.

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