August 16, 2015

What Does A Trophy Mean Anyway?

This post was last updated on April 17th, 2017 at 08:51 am

It’s a popular sentiment to put on a curmudgeon hat and denounce  society for giving kids medals and trophies for just showing up.

“Kids are too soft”
“We coddle our kids too much”
“In my day…”
“Get off my lawn”

This message got highlighted today when former Pittsburgh Steeler Superbowl champion James Harrison posted this on his instagram account.

A photo posted by James Harrison (@jhharrison92) on 

People love this stuff. And part of me does too. I don’t believe in awarding kids with things they don’t deserve. I’m not interested in boosting anyone’s ego just because they’re young. Caring often means helping young people come to terms with their failures and shortcomings, not to destroy them or their ego but to help them learn and grow.

What the notion of “not every kid deserves a trophy” fails to address is what a trophy means. For James Harrison, the SuperBowl trophy represented years of hard work and intense competition that’s only given to one of 32 teams.  I suppose for most, a trophy means you’ve won something. But depending on the recipient, the trophy may or may not have any significance.

My friend John Spencer said he received a medal for finishing a marathon. He didn’t win but worked really hard to finish and that medal meant a great deal. It might be that someone finishing second might not find the medal very meaningful if their goal was to win.

Trophies and awards have a place in our world, but I feel like those giving them out need to be clear about the intent. Sometimes it’s about competition and acknowledging winning. Other times it’s to make participants aware that accomplishments aren’t always about winning, but that effort matters. Whether it’s a trophy, a medal, a piece of paper, a handshake or an encouraging word, the symbol may not matter all that much and means different things to different people.

I suppose we need to ask what that trophy is meant to represent. Can a trophy represent participation or only winning? James Harrison and others have a clear distinction that trophies are meant for winners. Mixed in this conversation is the closely linked discussion about awards. Many have written about awards and honour rolls. I’ve never been a fan of using grades to rank and determine winners and losers. I think winning and losing is not something schools need to focus on. I think we need to be clear and honest with students about their strengths and weaknesses. Winning and losing is not something we all have to face. Competition is not inevitable. Outside of a friendly golf match or a word game with my wife, there’s little in my life that requires me to determine if I won or lost. Yet occasionally it’s nice to be rewarded for a good effort or a job well done. Most times that reward comes from self-satisfaction knowing I’ve done my best.

(Special thanks to my #SportsVoxRadio group for thinking through many of these ideas)