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The GEM Debate: A Trophy For Everyone?

I’m going to tear a page right out of the playbook of my life to use as today’s GEM debate and I’ll bet it’s one parents have pretty strong opinions about. My baby girl, Casey  (I should stop calling her my “baby girl” seein’ as I’m now looking up at her) made the volleyball team at her high school. As a former high school athlete and someone who thinks team sports are good for kids, this made me very proud.

This whole concept of having to “make the team” was new to Casey; in the 8th grade, everyone who went out, got to suit up. But high school is a whole different animal. During tryouts, I asked Casey about her chances and she told me she thought they were very good. I didn’t ask many more questions and now, I’m glad I didn’t. I would have been much more nervous if I knew then what I do now; 25 girls tried out for just 14 spots on the roster. Casey was right; her chances were good and she got on. Not so for a couple of her good friends.

Later that night at sports orientation, I ran into a couple other moms and the topic of conversation turned to the cuts on the volleyball team. One mother said she thought they should have allowed everyone on the team; after all, it was only fair that way. The other mother was non-committal. You want to know what I said? You already know, don’t you?

NO! No, putting everyone on the team is NOT fair. It’s not fair to ask the kids who are really good and belong there, to carry the weight of those who are not and do not. And it’s not fair to lie to those who aren’t good enough to earn a spot but are there anyway.

Our job as parents is not to protect our kids from disappointment; it’s to give them the tools with which to deal with it. What are they going to do when they apply for that first, big job? What happens if they get to the reception area and there are 30 people there? What if there’s someone better than them and they don’t get the job? That’s life. That’s how it works (most of the time) in the real world and that should not be a less on they are learning for the first time, at age 26.

No, the right way for us as parents to handle this is to teach our kids that they have to do their best ALL THE TIME but that even then, sometimes THEIR best is not THE best. Then we comfort, hug, dry tears and move on. We don’t call the school to berate the coach or beg for another shot. We don’t demand to see how the other athletes stacked up. We don’t offer to buy 11 more jerseys so everyone can be on the team. We teach our kids that this is life.

For Casey, making the team is just the first part of it, now she has to get good enough to EARN playing time.  I’ll work hard with her to help bring out her best but if there are girls better than her and the coach chooses to play them,  you know what kind of conversation we’re going to have.

Okay so let’s talk about this. What’s your take on “Everybody Gets A Trophy” that seems to permeate group sports nowadays? Do you think that’s a good idea or a bad idea? If you think it’s okay, until what age? And what do you tell your kids when they are good but not good enough to make the team? Lemme hear ya!


  1. Dano

    September 16, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly.

    There isn’t much incentive to work hard if someone’s just going to give you a trophy, anyhow.

  2. Katie

    September 16, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    One of my daughters does cheerleading. Not just pom poms & rah rah… but competitive cheer. When she was younger, everyone made a squad… “A” squad… not THE squad… The first year, she didn’t make the A squad, she was on the B squad.
    But, instead of letting her piss & moan about it, I let her sign up for tumbling & extra practices. The next year, she was on the A squad… and she made the Nationals squad. When she hit HS… she made the squad. Not everyone did, not even everyone that was on the A squads in the younger divisions did.
    I think it was better for her to know that she worked hard to do better & to be the best she could be.

  3. Rene Syler

    September 16, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    @Katie I’ll bet she appreciated it more, having had to work her tail off to get there too!

  4. kt moxie

    September 16, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    So, you’ve mostly heard from people who they, themselves, or their kids, were on the “winning” side of this equation. They worked hard, they got on the team. And…

    I whole-heartedly agree.


    We should also be giving kids the *opportunity to play.* To be on a team, and experience the benefits of team sports, of working hard, and reaping the benefits. Even if they are not so athletically inclined.

    When I was in high school, I went out for the soccer team as a Senior. I didn’t know until try-outs that ALL Seniors would be put on the Varsity team, and everyone else was divided between Varsity and JV by skill. So, I was on the Varsity team. And I was a benchwarmer. It was horrible. My best day of soccer was when half the JV team had the flu, and they needed players in order to not forfeit the game. I was “dropped” to JV for the day. I got to play nearly the WHOLE GAME. I played well and gained more experience than I had in weeks of being on the Varsity team. In the end, I asked my coach if I could stay on the JV team, but he said no.

    So… do I think kids should be placed on teams by skill? Yes. Absolutely. I’m proof that you should. From the “low athletic skill” end of the scale. (Turns out a short girl with flat feet had little chance of being the next Mia Hamm!)

    However, schools and sport organizations should do their best to give all kids (or as many as possible) an opportunity to play. Katie’s example of the A and B squads is a GREAT one for giving lots of opportunity, but still placing kids by skill.

    There are such great benefits from team sport — why should only the athletic elite get to experience it?

  5. Rene Syler

    September 16, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    @ktmoxie: The part I left out was that Casey did NOT make the JV team. Yes, she was summarily dismissed from the A squad. She worked hard and made the freshman team. I understand your point but sometimes in the real world (jobs) there is no A squad or B squad and I think we need to prepare our kids for that harsh reality.

  6. Stephanie

    September 16, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    I agree with kt moxie above. School is for learning. We don’t tell the kids who aren’t the best at math or reading that they can’t learn or participate. Why allow every kid to take English in HS then? Why inflate their ego if they’re just stupid? Why make the smart kids carry the class? They need to learn that not everyone is intelligent; better teach them early that lots of people are smarter than they are. That’s basically the system people want in school sports. Let every kid on the team. Who cares? They want to show up to practices and games and learn about teamwork and get active then why shouldn’t they? If we’re talking about public school paid for with tax dollars and accessible to all kids, then damn right they should all get a chance to participate. Group teams by ability and let everyone play.

  7. Joy

    September 16, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    Article in the New York Times on September 18 sort of addresses this issue. The title is What if the Secret to Success is Failure? I have comment about ktmoxie idea that all kids need the benefit of team sport. I think all kids need the benefit of play and physical activity and while I am not against everyone can play leagues I think it much better to use your time to build your strengths. If you are not an elite athlete then you should be spending your time on whatever you are the best at.

  8. Rene Syler

    September 16, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    @Stephanie: But the point is that that’s not how life works. If you’re gonna give trophy’s for just showing up, what incentive is there to work hard? You know what Casey’s coach told us (parents) the other night at the team meeting? She said ” We play three games. If the games are close, I am going to put the best players in there.” Why? Because she’s trying to win. Now, she also said if we wanted to, she was open to having a conversation about how to get better; how to improve your play. She also said, she wanted it to come from the child, not the parent because she wants to help them understand how to use their voice. Sorry, I can’t argue with any of what she said. Her job as a coach (and ultimately her career) rests on her win/loss records. In business, for publicly traded companies, CEO’s are judges by their record. Is it harsh? Hell yeah. So is life. Better to teach our kids now, then they get hammered over the head and think, ” Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

    BTW, to your question about public schools and who cares? Our school caps the players based on that very thing. Transporting/carrying a team of 25 is more than they will pay.

  9. michelle

    September 16, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    I agree that kids need to learn that life is about some degree of competition. ” No cut” teams or the “Fun Fair Positive Sports” (no losers) teach kids that its ok to be mediocre since you don’t have to work hard to be rewarded

  10. Day 2 Day Dad

    September 16, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    I am in total agreement with the OP. I believe participation awards CAN be given at any age but trophies should be reserved for those that performed the best. It’ sad to me that some parents are so insecure with their childhood experiences that they feel hey have to protect their children from the same experience. In general you would never hear a person that was good enough to participate in anything say they think everyone should play. These are USUALLY people the “didn’t make the cut”, pun intended. most will argue that children that have been cut or lose will have their self esteem ruined but in reality giving them false self esteem is much more detrimental in the long run. In this day and age it is absolutely possible that a person could not experience rejection until they apply for a job. What do you have on your hands when you the first time you hear you are not good enough is after you are 21? A person on their way down the road to depression.
    Children have to fail, children have to lose, children have to experience rejection it’s what builds their character. It’s what makes them stronger adults. If they want it bad enough they will work hard for it. As another post mentioned “sometimes that not even good enough”, but that real life.

  11. Katy

    September 16, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    I’m with Rene on this…Children need to fail in order to succeed…this is reality. If we don’t teach them now how to handle themselves when they are faced with “not getting a trophy”, then what? Children learn and grow from experiences…good & bad. As adults, we continue to grow through these experiences applying what we’ve already learned.

    There are opportunities for kids to play team sports at various levels of ability. School teams, town recreation teams, “travel” or private club teams. No different than major league baseball…there are majors, minors, semi-pro leagues, farm teams etc, etc. ALL based on ability. Kids can play on different types of teams. When we were in high school you tried out & either did or didn’t make the team…freshman team, JV, & varsity…you played on the team according to your ability.

    I have two kids playing soccer this season at two different levels. The youngest (9 yrs) is playing her second year on a “travel” team. There were tryouts in May for her team & she made it. Next year, at her level there will be tryouts again BUT two teams will be formed…”A” and “B” teams for the 1st time…she will have to earn her spot on either team or no team.

    My second child hasn’t had much soccer experience, BUT loves the game! He’s become very motivated to play the game by watching his sister. This week he tried out for the middle school team (public school) as an 8th grader…hasn’t played on a team since 1st grade. He DID make the team. He understands there are better players than him. He knows and wants to do well & get better…he’s very motivated to do so!

    I won’t lie…the day of try outs for my 8th grader was a difficult day for ME. I ran around making phone calls & spent a lot of my time in order to get all the “physical” paperwork to the school nurse (a nightmare to do last minute) and part of me questioned my efforts, BUT I did what I needed to do to give him the opportunity to try out. As a mom, I wanted him to make it, but I knew there were much better players then him. We had several conversations over the two days about making/not making the team & I was very frank with him. I’m happy for him, BUT I would have understood why he didn’t make the team.


    These are life lessons whether or not if turns out in you/your child’s favor.

  12. kt moxie

    September 17, 2011 at 11:32 am

    I will just a few follow ups to my initial points…

    On the benefits of team sport… For anyone who has truly played a competitive team sport (I actually was also on a highly ranked high school rowing team — so I do know what I’m talking about), the benefits go way beyond physical activity and learning a game. This is something that is worth learning. For everyone. You can’t learn this by reading it in a book. You have to learn it on a team, doing the practices, pushing each other to do better, competing. It doesn’t matter the competitive level. These skills can be used later in life, no matter what you will be doing in life. I don’t row anymore, but I still can use the teamwork skills I learned from being on that team.

    On “opportunity to play” — this follows directly from getting the benefits of team sport. If we are only letting the elite get to play team sports, then they are the only ones that are getting to learn the skills of playing on a competitive team. Again — I DO think we should be placing kids on teams by their skill level, but we should be giving as many kids as possible the opportunity to play, and experience competitive play and teamwork play, as possible. How else will kids learn, push themselves and gain this experience? Isn’t that what they are supposed to be doing? As for learning about failure — yep; that is important to learn, too. That’s called losing the game. I experienced my share of that — as a team.

    Thinking back? The team sports that did not have multiple skill level teams — I didn’t try out for those; I pre-failed myself. I knew I wouldn’t make the cut. For example — I loved playing volleyball and wanted to be on a team, but as a short girl with no jumping skills? No way. I didn’t even go to the try-outs. They only had one team.

  13. m.e. johnson

    September 17, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    You don’t have to play on a school team to be somebody. I wasn’t all that good, therefore didn’t care about it OR I didn’t care about it, therefore I wasn’t all that good. I did run track (this may sound strange) not because I loved it but because I had long legs and was good at it. It’s not a ‘team’ sport. I learned the most on the debate team ~ attention to detail, KNOW what you’re talking about before you speak, how to influence people, how to help teammates and accept help, share the glory (we were damn good) and a grudge match wasn’t really about grudges. We didn’t have a coach, we had an advisor who pretty much waited for us to ask for advice.

    It’s a shame schools have placed so much prestige (and money) in athletics even tho teamwork is required in other areas such as science fairs, etc.

  14. irene

    September 17, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    Years ago (good gosh it seems like yesterday) one of my kids loved cheerleading. Well, in terms of highschool, it is a big thing down south here. Well, we were so excited one year for tryouts because a retired pro baseball players daughter was trying out… we thought great if his daughter makes the squad fundraising this year will be a breeze! Welp, at tryouts it didn’t turn out according to plan — in fact, we had over 25 girls tryout and the team was a mix of surprise.

    What I was so surprised by was this family didn’t go running to the school board, etc. What did they do— invited everyone over for a movie night at their mansion and all was well that ended well…. most down to earth people my kids have ever went to school with.

    Good luck Casey….

  15. Amanda

    September 19, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    I’m late to the debate here, but internet is iffy some days and responding on a cell phone is just more than I have the patience for. Anyway, I’m going to take this from a different sport’s stand point, but this is a debate that came up for myself and my peers when I was bowling. Yeah, I said it, bowling. Listen, I know it isn’t exactly basketball, or cheerleading, but it is a sport, it meets the definition, and at the end of the day, you do hurt from it.

    Anyway, I had been on this league since I was in fifth grade, and believe me, my first season and a half was horrible. We had coaches, they would take us aside, show us what we were doing wrong, and give us the tools to get better, but it came down to us. If you were willing to take advantage of the fact you got to use the lanes for free outside of league play, then you’d probably get better–and hey, as a sophmore in highschool I was nominated to an international team going to compete live in New Zealand–but if you threw what they told you out, you probably didn’t get better.
    And getting better meant personal growth and the chance for personal recognition (both monthly and overall) and also meant team recognition (wins/highest team average/ the like).

    Suddenly, my junior year of highschool, at the end of the season, when we had the trophy ceremony I noticed that they had two tables, when they normally only had one for my division. And the second table was set with these small, simple trophies. They had the first, second, third, trophies for team ranking, then for personal successes (that year my cousin and alternated first and second for most of the female personal trophies), but that table wasn’t what everyone was whispering about. Who were those little trophies for?!

    They were participation trophies. WHAT! And it wasn’t just the attendence ones that we were used to (for being there every week), this was if you showed up at least once you got the trophy. We were appalled! Every one of us who had been showing up every Saturday morning (hey, all the parents know it isn’t easy getting any child up early on a Saturday and we played at 8 AM…UGH.) no matter what, and now the people who hadn’t were getting recognized?! They got to take a trophy home?
    It made me think back to that first season I’d played, remember I’d mentioned I sucked back then, yeah, I sat there surrounded by my team and waited with bated breath for my name to be called. It wasn’t. Sure, my team mates still congratulated me because of their sportsmanship, they said I’d get something the next year, but that doesn’t remove the sting from the fact I left empty handed. And what did my mom do? She hugged me, wiped my tears, and said, “well now we know what you have to beat for next year…” So the next year, I came back with a vengence.

    So, yeah, this “trophy for everyone” concept burns my buns. Look at it from someone like Casey, who did make it to the team, now when everyone gets on, no matter how well they did, or everyone gets a trophy just because they were there, it belittles the hard work others have put in. And if you let everyone on the team, then you have to let everyone play when it’s game time, not just at practice, and that means players that are good may be benched when they’re needed most because the coach has to make sure everyone gets to play. It’s a no win, at some point, we have to teach our children that if you want something, work for it, because it’s not going to be handed to you. And sometimes, their best may not be enough, that doesn’t mean they didn’t do their best, just that more was required that was found in a better candidate. As parents, it’s OUR responsibility to teach our children that.

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Combing the aisles at Target in search of the best deal on Cheerios, it hit Rene Syler like the stench of a dirty diaper on a hot summer’s day. Not only is perfection overrated its utterly impossible! Suddenly empowered, she figuratively donned her cape, scooped up another taco kit for dinner and Good Enough Mother was born.

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