When I was young, I was a pretty good athlete. I won lots of trophies and medals, I won tournaments, I made the All-Star teams most years. I won seven varsity letters in high school for running well, but my sports career ended before my first college race. Mono just snapped me of the energy to go on.
When I think back on my time playing sports, I’m grateful for all the lessons I learned there (even the ones I only later realized.). Being a teammate. Making friends. Exercise. Critical thinking, under pressure. Discipline. Even learning how to lose. My time playing sports, from little league to college taught me many valuable lessons. It was critical to my life.
One thing that didn’t make those lists was the trophies, medals, and attention I got for winning youth sporting events. Did it help my self-esteem? Sure, but I didn’t have an issue with that anyway. What about the kids who are taught they are losing, or worse yet, are losers? The kid that can’t hit, throw, or catch well? The kid on the end of the bench? They get the least playing time often, which denies them the benefits outlined above. They make the least friends, because they’re the least “part” of the team. I think back now on my sports time, and wonder what it would have been like to be them.
Much of the “trophy culture” in youth sports is driven by parents, and is for their validation. It reinforces bad behavior and it teaches bad values. It enforces a “to the winners go the spoils” attitude with the benefits of playing sports, which hardly creates an empathetic society later. It places the self value entirely in getting a trophy, at a point in life when the trophy doesn’t have any real value yet. All those little league wins don’t mean a damn thing when college scholarships get handed out. You have no idea at age ten who’s going to be a superstar athlete, so stop trying to create one.
I do think there’s a time to start separating young athletes by ability, particularly as they reach their teens. That can be a good life lesson too, and can make a kid work much harder, or go seeking a different talent or direction. I just don’t think that time comes with a nine year old.
I loved playing on the fields pictured above. I did well there. I don’t think I did well because I won though. I did well because my teammates then are my friends still now. I grew up healthy and with a positive body image. I learned how to compete and think under pressure. I learned to win and lose better. The trophies though? I’ll trade them for the memories.