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Do participation trophies hinder child development?
The fierce debate over participation trophies ignores a crucial fact: Children aren't idiots.
- Coaches, parents, and pro athletes malign participation trophies for teaching children the wrong life lessons.
- Psychologists argue it is more beneficial to praise a child's efforts over their achievements.
- But proponents who use participation trophies as emotional Band-Aids will find they do their children no favors either.
Controversial subjects brim with intense emotions. Abortion, the death penalty, climate change, gender identity, assisted suicide, bring up any one of these subjects and you're guaranteed a lively conversation to follow. But if you really want to make a friend or family member frothy, consider discussing the participation trophy.
Jeff Walz, head coach of the University of Louisville's women's basketball team, offers a prime example. In 2016, he railed against participation trophies after his team lost a game.
"Right now, the generation of kids that are coming through, everybody gets a damn trophy, okay? […] What's that teaching kids? It's okay to lose! And unfortunately, it's our society. It's what we're building for.
And it's not just in basketball, it's in life. […] Everybody thinks they should get a good job. No, that's not the way it works. But unfortunately, that's what we are preparing for. […] I mean, not to be too blunt, but you're a loser. Like, we're losers, we got beat. So, you lost. There is no trophy for us."
Charming. And Coach Walz is hardly alone. Many parents, coaches, and professional athletes believe participation trophies don't adequately prepare children to face the challenges and disappointments of our harsh world. The result is an entire generation of enfeebled adults who are unable to function or achieve.
"[Participation trophies] are bad for kids, bad for parents, bad for society," Cobi Jones, former Olympian and midfielder for the Los Angeles Galaxy, said during a PragerU interview. "This belief — that showing up is an accomplishment — is self-destructive because the pain of losing is part of what drives one to improve. […] In the real world, you're rewarded for achievement, not effort."
Yep, five inches of cheap golden plastic handed to a five-year-old for picking daisy in left field will be all it takes to diminish his competitive drive, careening him toward a life lacking both meaning and achievement.
Lucky for that kid, and the many others raised with participation trophies, Walz and Jones are not developmental psychologies. Their analysis is based more on a colloquial understanding of what motivates children, and adults, to succeed and not empirical data.
Participation trophies and the developing mind
Detractors argue that participation trophies will teach children that hard work and improvement doesn't matter.
Detractors worry that participation trophies will indoctrinate children into believing that winning isn't important and showing up is all that matters. Children will, in turn, grow up to be adults who are both lackadaisical and narcissistic. By providing trophies to winners only can we instill in them a proper of the relationship between hard work, improvement, and achievement.
But this view ignores evidence suggesting that rewards are only a small part of it. According to sports and clinical psychologist Jonathan Fader, a crucial component is the moment when someone discovers that their dedication and efforts have come to fruition. Sometimes that moment culminates in a trophy. But more often, there exist many smaller moments of personal success. Undervaluing that effort and those smaller moments can in turn hinder motivation and improvement.
"But it's not just the 'losers' we need to worry about; it's the 'winners' too. Phrases like 'You're a winner' or 'You're a natural' can actually be toxic to how kids deal with losing," writes Fader. Such phrases could instill that whether they're winner or loser is something fixed, beyond their ability to change, even with effort.
Fader points to the works of child psychologist Carol Dweck. In an analysis published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Dweck and her colleagues reviewed six studies looking at how different types of praise affected a child's willingness to challenge themselves and perform.
Their analysis showed that children who were praised for their efforts, as opposed to strictly their performance, tended to believe that intelligence is something that could be improved — they strived to do so. Conversely, the children who were praised for being smart were found to be more performance focused. This resulted in them displaying "less task persistence, less task enjoyment, more low-ability attributions, and worse task performance."
Dweck calls these different views "growth" and "fixed" mindsets, respectively. Her research suggests that if we really want students to improve their skills, a cornerstone of later success, we need to acknowledge and reward efforts, not talent and not exclusively achievement. Participation trophies can be an important part of this approach.
Overestimating the value of the win
Most children won't make sports a career, but they can still learn many healthy life habits from the experience: win, lose, or draw. Photo credit: Sgt. Laurissa Hodges / U.S. Army
Participation trophy detractors are also prone to incredible leaps in logic. They assume that the lessons learned at a soccer mom's knee will inevitably, irrevocably transfer from childhood to adulthood and from there to society at large. But this view ignores several facts about how children interact with sports.
For most children, sports won't be a realistic career goal. Significantly less than 1 percent of high school athletes go professional. If the aim is to make children winners, then statistically our sports programs fail spectacularly.
For the remaining 99 percent, sports will ultimately be about challenging themselves, acquiring habits for an active lifestyle, developing social bonds, and creating fond memories. A participation trophy can become an emotional object, a symbolic reminder of those moments.
"The idea of giving trophies only to the winners doesn't emphasize enough of the other values that are important," Kenneth Barish, clinical associate professor of psychology at Weill Medical College, told Today. "We want kids to participate in sports, to learn to improve their skills, to help others, to work hard and make a contribution to the team."
Walz and Jones's argument then assumes that sports equip children with the skills and grit to succeed in the adult world, and there is some truth to this. Sports can teach career-transferable skills such as teamwork, communication, and self-discipline. But sports are ultimately a very simplistic analogy for life. They come with a rulebook, a referee, and unequivocal win conditions — things the so-called "real world" conspicuously lack. Off the field, what constitutes success is often ambiguous, contestable, and open to interpretation.
Dweck's growth-mindset model offers a superior tool for developing mental fortitude. By focusing on effort over achievement, the growth mindset helps people develop resilience to setbacks. And by teaching children to enjoy the effort, not the reward, it allows them to develop their own metrics for what constitutes success in life.
A new type of participation trophy?
Winning is great, but psychologists argue that we should neither overvalue nor undervalue a child's efforts.
At this point, we've focused on argument against participation trophies. That's because detractors tend to lean hard on sensational rhetoric. To them, participation trophies are an end-to-history-type scenario, one that will lead us to social stagnation. Even so, participation trophy enthusiasts can also miss a critical element in the debate: the children.
Children aren't idiots. They understand that not everybody is a winner and that winning is better than losing. They're equally aware that a first-place trophy is more valuable than a participation trophy (one's way shiner than the other). This means parents and coaches who hope to provide an emotional Band-Aid will ultimately be disappointed. Participation trophies neither devalue first-place trophies, nor shield a child's emotions from the sting of losing.
"Participation trophies were worse than no recognition — they were a sop, an insulting suggestion that a trinket could trick you into feeling like you accomplished something," writes Torie Bosch for Slate.
In truth, there's a limited window in a child's life when a participation trophy provides a feeling of true reward and accomplishment. Speaking with Today, sociologist Hilary Level Friedman noted that a good rule of thumb is the "ages that kids still believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy." For older kids, participation trophies amount to little more than what Bosch calls "an exquisite shame."
Nor should participation trophies be offered for simply showing up, even among younger children. Children are more attune than many adults give them credit, and they can perceive when a parent's excessive fawning is an attempt to hoodwink them.
One study, also published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, found that children's schoolwork suffers when parents either over- or underpraised their performance. Children whose parents provided accurate, or slightly exaggerated, praise saw the most beneficial results. These results suggest that participation trophies have a place in sports. However, they shouldn't be one-size-fits-all or used to reward unrealistic accomplishments in the hopes of shielding a child's emotions.
Dweck shares these concerns. She worries that well-intentioned attempts to promote growth mindsets may result in what she calls "false growth-mindsets":
"Want to hide learning gaps from [students]? Just tell them, "Everyone is smart!" The growth mindset was intended to help close achievement gaps, not hide them. It is about telling the truth about a student's current achievement and then, together, doing something about it, helping him or her become smarter."
And here's the Shyamalan twist of this debate. Participation trophy detractors like Walz and Jones are ultimately correct: Participation trophies are a bad idea. They're just right for all the wrong reasons, and their solution to the problem is flawed.
Based on the above research, good practice seems be to giving younger children trophies, but ones that award effort, not just showing up. These trophies would praise individual merit and improvement — whether that's achieving a PR, improve a specific skill, or even something as simple as getting over fear of the ball. For old children, it's best to drop the trophies altogether and replace them with praise for effort and growth in tandem with honest discussion on how to improve.
The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.
- One especially mysterious thing about the asteroid impact, which killed the dinosaurs, is how it transformed Earth's tropical rainforests.
- A recent study analyzed ancient fossils collected in modern-day Colombia to determine how tropical rainforests changed after the bolide impact.
- The results highlight how nature is able to recover from cataclysmic events, though it may take millions of years.