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The Value of Participation Trophies

A participation trophy is one that is awarded for simply participating in something. The concept has stirred the wrath of the people, as it does every decade or so, by professional football player James Harrison, for refusing to allow his children to receive a trophy for merely “showing up.”

To many, this is a discussion about values, but to me it is a discussion of value.

Since this is a topic involving sports and trophies, let’s explore the concept of value using three sports scenarios:

My friend Andy was on a tennis team that won a few city championships. Every time the team won he received a large commemorative plaque celebrating the accomplishment. Just last week Andy told me that he didn’t value the plaques at all because he rarely played during the season and did not play at all in the playoffs. Andy believes he didn’t actually contribute to those victories.

When my son Alex was six-years-old, we signed him up for soccer. Within a few short weeks we realized soccer wasn’t his thing. He wasn’t particularly competitive or athletic and he began to show anxiety about playing. After each game he expressed concern about not contributing to the team. He wanted to quit. Believing in the importance of perseverance, my wife and I wouldn’t let him quit. I practiced with him in the back yard after work and he did show some signs of improvement, but by the end of the season he was the only kid on his team who didn’t score a goal. It was a miserable season and I felt terrible for him. On the other hand, I couldn’t have been more proud. He worked hard and stuck it out. He overcame his anxiety and gave it his very best every time he entered the game. The team wasn’t very good, but I couldn’t imagine anyone more deserving of a trophy than Alex.

Years ago, I received a “letter” for playing high school baseball. I had met the playing time or contribution requirements to receive the award. Our team didn’t actually win anything; in fact, we were pretty average. Still, my letter hangs proudly in my sports-themed basement to this day.

In the first example, Andy experienced the accomplishment of winning a championship, but he didn’t particularly value the achievement. Andy didn’t believe that he contributed to the team’s success. Things easily attained have less worth.

Alex’s team didn’t do very well and he didn’t contribute much, but the grit and determination he showed were inspirational. Participating meant overcoming fear and that is an achievement in itself. He would later direct that tenacity toward academics and excel at subjects that had far more meaning to him.

In the third example, I played on an unsuccessful high school baseball team. The letter I received was akin to a participation trophy. However, that letter has great value to me because it was difficult to obtain. Not every student who tried out for the baseball team made the it and not every player on the team met the requirements to receive a letter.

An economist might define value as the worth of the rights and benefits of ownership. She would sell you on the utility of the good or service and the power of that good or service in a voluntary exchange. In other words, what’s it worth on the open market? By that definition, neither Andy’s tennis trophy, nor my high school baseball letter are worth anything.

A marketer might define value as how something is perceived to meet a personal want or need and it is measured by how much that person is willing to pay for it. As a little leaguer, I dreamed of playing high school baseball. So, making the team was the achievement. Payment for my letter came in the form of sacrifice (time) and effort (practice).

So, is there value in receiving a participation trophy? I guess it depends on the situation. A key component of achievement is how we define our goals and you should never allow someone else to determine the value of your accomplishments. You alone own that right.


Here are some terms you might use to determine the value of participating: sacrifice, effort, desire, emotional connection, merit, and scarcity.

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