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Stop Rewarding Participation

I was a highly decorated childhood soccer player. My five-year career as a member of the Red T-Rexes featured five trophies, five awards banquets, and exactly zero wins. It was, in the words of my coach (who also happened to be my father), “a little ridiculous.” Besides the fact that I now have a number of cheap, plastic trophies collecting dust in the back of my closet, this trophy overload speaks to a larger societal phenomenon—one of rewarding kids simply for participating. This, as it turns out, may be harmful.

According to author Ashley Merryman, giving out participation trophies can have detrimental long-term effects on children. Merryman notes that handing out an excessive number of awards encourages complacency. Simply letting kids lose, says Merryman, encourages them to focus on getting better. Additionally, Merryman references a study that claims participation trophies encourage narcissistic tendencies. All of this evidence would seem to suggest that perhaps I shouldn’t have received quite so many trophies for failing to score a single goal for five consecutive seasons.

Expanding beyond the world of adolescent athletics, psychologist Vivian Diller asserts that the poor precedent established by over-rewarding is at the root of many of the psychological issues that Diller claims plague the millennial generation. Diller notes that merely rewarding participation makes the millennial generation expect the same comparable success as their peers without having to work as hard. Because of this, millennials are more likely to be both unhappy with their lack of professional success and less motivated to work at self-improvement.

Both Diller and Merryman identify the over-rewarding of children as a root cause of negative personality traits that present themselves in the adult behavior of millennials.

Rather than simply rewarding kids for just showing up, both Diller and Merryman suggest that allowing kids to fail, and teaching them to learn from those failures and improve themselves, is the route to encouraging a more healthy and successful mindset.

This suggests that maybe, had I not received so many trophies for hiding behind defenders in an effort to avoid being passed the soccer ball, perhaps the Red T-Rexes would have enjoyed a greater measure of success (and maybe even won a game! Or at least come within two goals of winning a game…). More importantly, there is abundant evidence that shows the mentality encouraged by participation trophies is detrimental in the short run, and manifests itself in negative long-term psychological implications.

So what does this mean for us millennials, who comprise the so-called over-rewarded generation? While many of us may have old trophies in our closets that we received undeservingly, we should focus on working harder and not being complacent with the success we have achieved. Rather than being content with just showing up (even if it is to that 9 AM on a Friday) or accomplishing the bare minimum, it is in your best interest to focus on constantly trying to improve yourself and appreciate your failures.

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