These have become buzzwords that elicit angry responses from anyone above the age of thirty. "If only those kids knew how to work hard and didn't expect a trophy for waking up in the morning" or something like that. In fact, evoking an angry reaction towards participation trophies is the easy way to now go viral, lambasting the current generation of youth for "not being prepared for life." A few weeks ago, the Louisville Head Women's Basketball Coach, Jeff Walz, went in on the participation trophy generation and boy did people go crazy for it. Walz was a "savior," and he was "telling these kids how life really is."
Unfortunately for all involved, they couldn't be further from the reality of the matter.
The video opens up with a discussion on his team lacking focus and concentration. The discussion then turns towards participation trophies and losers, the usual suspects in a conversation that comes up once every month or so. This is where people stopped watching the video, walking away with righteous indignation of a generation of athletes who they deem "softer" than back in the "good old days."
It's good to remember that Coach Walz is in his 10th season with the Louisville Women's Basketball Team, and in his capacity as head coach, I would make the assumption that he is aware of the recruits that his staff is bringing in every year if not being heavily involved in that process. These players weren't handed to him right before this fateful game, nor was he thrown into this game with his team without having a single practice with the group.
Our goal isn't to put down Coach Walz, but this article is going to focus on the conversation that should have happened thanks to the door that he opened for us. We have to ask ourselves whether or not participation trophies are the real problem, or have they become a scapegoat for coaches at all levels?
Culture, environment, these are things that can make or break a child's development into a good person most importantly, and a good soccer player after that. Participation trophies or getting orange slices at half time CAN be contributing factors to a child's development environment but they are not the only factors. We have a responsibility as coaches and educators to create an environment and development culture for our players that is most conducive to their growth, while also accepting that we cannot control every outside factor that the player may encounter.
I cannot control whether or not my players eat fast food regularly, as I don't live with them. I can control my ability to educate players on the necessity of a hollistic approach to development that makes nutrition and rest a necessary and integral part of the development process. The real question we have to ask ourselves is have we used participation trophies to explain why our environment wasn't good enough to create intrinsically motivated individuals.
The idea that this current generation of players is a "participation trophy" generation is a laughably lazy generalization that forgets the fact that as the modern game continues to progress, players are training better, taking care of their bodies better, and having a much better approach to development as coaches and educators and the individual athletes are able to offer and practice better methods and standards as our knowledge base continues to grow.
As I have worked with youth players, the focus was never on any end of season trophy. The focus was always inspiring a love for the game and, just as important, a love for self-improvement. We need to create an environment where people are failing their way to success because the message has to be very clear from the start, you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone to improve. You have to go through trial and error to get better, because nothing ever grows in the comfort zone. We can create a fun and challenging environment in which players are focused on their improvement because it's enjoyable. Even better, can we convince them that challenging and pushing themselves is what's really fun. Reaching new heights, achieving previously unimaginable objectives, these are life lessons that we need to foster intrinsic motivation in our players. The trophies, the cookies after the game, all of these are mitigated by the environment we are cultivating in training and games.
You can have a U10 player in a professional club and a U10 player in a grassroots club and in both cases you can create a competitive, fun, motivating environment in which players push themselves because THEY want to, not because they want a trophy. When you begin to accept that you cannot control every aspect of a player's life, especially a very young child, you begin to focus on the aspects you can control for their benefit. You have control over the session you deliver, over the words you use in your interactions with your players. You have control over whether or not you choose to inspire your players or be the standoffish coach who is hard to approach. You have control over the message you transmit to your teams and players through your body language, through your actions on the weekend.
Focus on the process and empower your players to prioritize what is important in their development as a person and as an athlete. Forget the participation trophy. Work hard each day in developing young men and women to work hard, to understand that nothing is given to them freely, and to believe that with focus and hard work, anything can be achieved.
The Maryland team that beat Coach Walz' Lousiville team came from the same group of recruits. The same ladies that would have also received participation trophies as an eight year old. These are not women who were created in a secret lab, but rather they were athletes who were educated on what is important in their personal growth and development.
The next time you throw a tantrum about a participation trophy and use that as an excuse or a generalization, look inwards before you look to assign blame outwards. I am reminded of an old African proverb. which says "If there is no enemy within, the enemy outside can do us no harm." Likewise, if you can create the right team culture, participation trophies aren't going to derail your train.
- Paul Cammarata
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