Should Every Kid Get a Trophy?

There appear to be two philosophies when it comes to awards and trophies: those who want to hand out participation trophies for every little accomplishment, and those who think a pat on the back is just about right. So which side is right?

This question is an important one. The way in which you decide to hand out awards can have an impact on a child’s motivation to participate in sports. Awards can either enhance intrinsic motivation or cause an athlete to rely on extrinsic motivation. Cox defines intrinsic motivation as “motivation that comes from within” while extrinsic motivation is “motivation that comes from an external as opposed to an internal source”(1), such as playing on the soccer team because you want the trophy presented at the end of the season.

Trophies and medals are extrinsic rewards that can either enhance the intrinsic motivation a child feels to participate in sports, or they can become the sole reason that the athletes participate in sports, changing the child’s focus from intrinsic to extrinsic factors. Extrinsic rewards can serve two functions: to provide evidence of ability or to control (2). Once the athlete feels controlled by the trophy, or by getting paid to play as in the case of professional athletes, intrinsic motivation decreases (1). On the other hand, rewards that provide information can increase intrinsic motivation (2). Helping an athlete develop intrinsic motivation can lead to them developing self- determination and help them develop personal control and a sense of choice in what they do. It will also help them to maintain the feeling of joy in participation (1).

If a reward is to be given, it must be viewed by the child as being given due to competent performance in order to enhance intrinsic motivation. For example, the very first season I played soccer we had the typical end of season party with pizza, soda and trophies. However, my coach decided to find something special about each player to award the trophies for, and all these years later I still remember that I got the award for most improved defender. Feeling recognized for my effort intrinsically motivated me to want to continue to play and improve even more on my skills as defender (only somehow I ended up as a forward/midfielder!).

So if you decide to reward your youngsters in whatever form or fashion, make sure that your reward is communicating something positive about the athlete’s performance. A trophy for a team who wins first place in a tournament may take on a whole different meaning than a trophy for a team who had a mediocre season and all the participants know they had a mediocre season. Try to find and recognize special qualities about the effort and skills of each player if you decide to use awards, and make sure that you are honest and sincere in your recognition. Another approach might be for the coach to acknowledge an accomplishment in private. This method does not invite social comparison and helps the child to focus on his or her individual performance, not on outdoing others (3).


(1) Cox, R. H. (2002). Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications (5th ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill.

(2) Hale, L. (2005). Sport Psychology Class Notes: Module 3. Retrieved September 13, 2005 from

(3) Treasure, D. C. (2001). Enhancing young people’s motivation in youth sport: An achievement goal approach. In G. C. Roberts, Advances in Motivation in Sport and Exercise (pp. 79-100). Champlain, IL: Human Kinetics

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