Why Participation Trophies Erode Confidence

You didn’t win, but here’s a trophy for trying. Go you!

Participation trophies are emblems of millennial entitlement, a well-intended effort to make kids feel special, even when they lost.

It’s time to call it a day on this ruse. Kids know when they lose!

If you want to create a confident kid, it’s more appropriate and effective to teach them how to congratulate the winner than it is for you to act like everyone’s performance was the same.

The best parenting advice I ever got was this:

In an ideal world a child is raised to believe they are incredibly special AND they are no more special than anyone else.

Giving out participation trophies, or insisting your kid get an A when they deserve a C, or any other attempt to make them never experience hardship does not increase their confidence, it erodes it. Pretending they won when they lost does not make them feel special, and denies the true winner their due.

I got a powerful lesson in losing in junior high. I was a diver on the swimming and diving team. At one meet, my friend, unexpectedly beat the state champion diver.  The champion had an off day and my friend dove the best meet of her life.

Here’s what I remember most, the state champ walked over to my friend, shook her hand, and in front of everyone said, “Congratulations, you won. Great meet.” This fifteen-year-old girl had the presence of mind to walk up to another girl, while wearing a bathing suit in front of the entire swimming and diving team, shake her hand, and congratulate her.

Wow! I know adults who can’t muster that kind of gravitas.

Unpack this from both sides. I bet the loss stung pretty badly for the champion. But how much confidence does she now have about her ability to handle setbacks? She knows it’s not fatal.

And how do you think the winner feels? She just performed three levels above her normal skill level and she’s been congratulated in front of the entire team? She knows, when it’s pressure time, I can do it.

No child should ever feel ridiculed or belittled or shamed. But there’s a big difference between belittling someone and acknowledging the truth, today someone else was better. Not a better human, just better at this.

We’re not all good at sports, or theater, or chess, or math. Pretending we are doesn’t make anyone feel special; it just diminishes real accomplishment.

A lot of business leaders complain about over-entitled millennials. Yet our most successful clients are teaming with high-energy young people who are crushing it at work.

The secret is to find young people with resilience, and if they didn’t learn it in childhood, your role as a leader is to teach it. We helped one of our clients create a resilience workshop, where people learned how many failures it takes to create success. They also learned how a true champion congratulates someone who beat them.

My own kids got plenty of participation trophies, but when they left home, they didn’t take the trophies with them. In fact, they told me to throw them out. For them, the trophies were meaningless trinkets, memories of events that would have been better preserved with team photos.

People aren’t proud of something they didn’t earn. If we want to improve the strength and resilience of the next generation, let’s give them the confidence to lose.