Trophies and Rewards Can Be Harmful to Young Athletes

Extrinsic rewards can destroy love of the game.

Posted May 25, 2019

Ford Video/Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports
Source: Ford Video/Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports

I remember long-ago when my Little League teammates would “swing for the pepperoni.” Our team’s sponsor―a restaurant owner in Chicago―promised us a pizza for every home run we hit.

Is it desirable to offer young athletes rewards for participation or achievement? There’s no simple answer to this question.

What are some of the pitfalls of external/extrinsic rewards?

Children usually participate in sports because of their internal/intrinsic motivation to play "for the fun of it." What happens when material rewards (food, money, trophies, ribbons, T-shirts, etc.) are introduced? Can kids lose their intrinsic motivation? Sadly, the answer is “yes.”

If carried to an extreme, external rewards can replace intrinsic motivation as the reason for participating in sports. When young athletes begin to see extrinsic rewards as the reason for their participation, the removal of these rewards may result in a loss of interest in participation. In some cases, this problem may transfer from a specific sport to sports in general.

Using extrinsic rewards to undermine intrinsic motivation is the essence of the over-justification hypothesis. This social psychological phenomenon is illustrated in the following story:

An old man lived alone on a street where children played noisily every afternoon. One day the din became too much, and he called the kids into his house. He told them he liked to listen to them play, but his hearing was failing, and he could no longer hear their games. He asked them to come around each day and play noisily in front of his house. If they did, he would give them each a dollar. The youngsters raced back the following day and made a tremendous racket in front of his house. The old man paid them, and asked them to return the next day. Again they made noise, and again the old man paid them for it. But this time he gave each child only 75 cents, explaining that he was running out of money. On the following day, they got only 50 cents each. Furthermore, the old man told them, he would have to reduce the fee to 25 cents on the fourth day. The children became angry, and told the old man they would not be back. It was not worth the effort, they said, to make noise for only 25 cents a day.

A real-life example is the case of a 12-year-old wrestler, who routinely examined the trophies at stake before each wrestling tournament. If the winners' trophies weren’t large enough, the boy refused to wrestle and withdrew from the tournament.

What causes parents to fall into the extrinsic-reward trap?

Parents sometimes offer their kids rewards for participation and achievement because they believe they’re showing support. That desire sometimes develops as a compensation for feelings of guilt associated with not being able to attend practices or games. In any event, the rewards might give youngsters a short-term boost, but they lead to long-term erosion of athletes’ motivation.

Are there any exceptions to the above?

Yes! As kids get older, participation in a sport usually requires more of their time and prevents them from having a part-time job. In such cases, it’s acceptable for parents to give athletes a supplemental allowance because they don’t have time to work. However, it’s important that athletes understand it’s not a bribe or payment for participating.

What’s the bottom line?

I’m not suggesting that trophies and other rewards should be eliminated from youth sports. They certainly have their rightful place as a means of recognizing outstanding effort and achievement. But it’s truly a tragedy when children lose the capacity to enjoy athletic competition for its own sake.

Adults who are in charge of youth sports―administrators, coaches, parents―must maintain a proper perspective so that trophies don’t become the be-all and end-all of participation. It’s important that awards are of modest proportion, and they should be available for the most-improved and dedicated athletes, as well as the most skillful ones.

If implemented correctly, trophies can be useful tools to teach valuable lessons. Simply stated,

  • Trophies symbolize past achievement.
  • Athletes’ future performance is what counts.

Do you want to learn more about coaching and parenting young athletes?

The Mastery Approach Coaching and Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports are research-based videos that emphasize skill development, achieving personal and team success, giving maximum effort, and having fun. To access the videos, go to the Youth Enrichment in Sports website.

Postscript

My dad taught me to play baseball the right way, so I didn’t get any pizzas by “swinging for the fences.” ☺