Pittsburgh Steelers star James Harrison has returned his sons' participation trophies to their coaches, saying they didn't "earn them." Harrison explained his feelings about "participation trophies" in youth sports in a lengthy Instagram post this weekend.
I couldn't disagree with Harrison more. Don't get me wrong. I respect what Harrison had to endure to get where he is today. He went from being a walk on at Kent State who went undrafted and was released several times before finally donning the black and yellow for the Steelers. He's now appeared in five pro-bowls. I know he has a far more impressive athletic resume than I do, but I respectfully disagree with his feelings about participation trophies. For the record, Harrison's sons are 6 and 8 years old. What we're talking about here is not High School varsity athletics. Those awards and accolades should be earned. I broke a lot of bones and passed out at a lot of finish lines to earn those. For the sake of my argument, I'm talking about recreational sports leagues for kids in grades K-6.
When I was a kid I played soccer and I sucked at it. I had trouble breathing running up and down the field. I think I've scored more goals as an adult playing indoor soccer than I did in the 6+ years I played as a kid. I just wasn't as athletic as my teammates and it was discouraging. But do you know why I didn't quit? At the end of the season I got the same trophy as the other kids. It kept me motivated enough to stick with soccer and not quit the team. Over those years, I learned the importance of teamwork, how to make friends with kids from other schools and picked up some decent soccer skills. As an adult I recognize those lessons were far more valuable than award for scoring the most goals, netting the most corner kicks or blocking the most shots. They're lessons I may have otherwise missed out on if I had let how discouraged I felt get to me and quit the team because no matter how hard I tried, I just wasn't a soccer star.
Even before I became aware of Harrison's post, my boyfriend and I were talking about participation awards in local road races. My friends own Final Kick Events and their races are moving away from age group awards. They now give every participant in their 5K, 10K, Half Marathon and Marathon races a finisher's medal regardless of place or time. While I'm still competitive enough to have a shot at age group awards, I actually like this model far more because it encourages everyone to reach their own goals.
My mom is a perfect example. She's in her fifties and never participated in organized athletics. She didn't get in to running when my dad and I did. She's tried a ton of those over the counter, "miracle" diet pills to lose weight with very little success. Recently her friends got her into walking the hike bike trail in our home town. She's also making healthier eating choices now. Why now? Why at her age? She told me she wants to be around to see me and my little sister succeed in our lives and careers. Mom's also hoping that her healthier lifestyle will help her get off her high blood pressure medication. To go from couch to goals like that? My mom is the type of person that deserves a medal at the finish line of her first 5K. It took her a lot more guts to get there than it did to get someone like me who's been running since middle school to get to the finish line of a half marathon.
If participation medals and trophies can inspire kids (and adults alike) to set and reach goals even if they're not the best of the best on the team, then I think they're great! I really don't think getting a trophy at the end of a season where kids showed up and played hard in every game will make them grow up to be entitled adults. I never felt like I should have been given a trophy at the end of soccer season, but I was certainly grateful for having something that validated how hard I tried to be good. Sorry James Harrison. Let's agree to disagree on this one. I feel bad that your little boys don't get to keep their trophies for leaving it out on the field this season.