Last week while talking with a friend, the topic of rewarding people for their work and their accomplishments came up. This led to that hot topic in sports and the rest of the world lately — participation trophies and awards.

Many of you fall squarely in the camp of “Participation trophies are bad, and they are causing the softening and weakening of America (or whatever country you live in).”

Allow me to offer a different perspective and see what you think.

As my friend and I were talking, he talked about the fact that when he was a wrestler, he didn’t get a medal unless he won a certain number of matches. He had to have the scoreboard success in order to get the award. The award (medal) was the physical item that proved to him and to others that he had succeeded.

As we talked, I brought up the concept of rewarding great effort, discipline, mental toughness, accountability, commitment to team, and things like that. I talked about how early in my career, I had players who embodied everything that I/we wanted our team members to display and live by, but oftentimes, those athletes did not “win” the actual contest or have the same level of success as some of the more talented players. Those athletes didn’t have the same level of talent as the ones who consistently performed better. They simply went out and did everything that was asked of them to the best of their abilities every day in practice and in games.

Should we not reward those players in some way for being living embodiments of what we are trying to teach our team members to be?

Do they not deserve to be recognized for the very thing that we are trying to have them be and do for the good of the team?

What about bench players who don’t get into the game but who bring their best every night to prepare the starters and “stars” to perform the way that they do? Don’t those bench players deserve some form of recognition for what they bring to their teammates’ success?

Or do we just give those people an “Atta’ Boy” and send them on their way without recognizing that what they did for us was as important, and maybe even more important, than what anyone else did?


For those of you who coach at the high school level, think about who was named as All-Conference or All-State on your team and in your conference and your state this year or in recent years. Think about who won the “MVP” on your team.

For those of you in the business world, think about who received the best bonuses or got some kind of plaque this year that is now hanging on their office wall.

What did these people do to receive these awards?

In sports, they are the ones who score the most or who win the most or who display some outward skill that leads to success. So often, they are the ones who are the most talented in your organization. They have a gift, and they use it for their betterment and the betterment of your team. They are now being rewarded for that.

That is a good thing. There is nothing wrong with winning trophies, plaques, and accolades for those kinds of accomplishments because of the skill one has at performing at a high level. Those people deserve to be recognized for that.

However, think about how many of those people who won those awards who did not display the types of characteristics I mentioned earlier that we want to see in the members of our teams – strong work habits, discipline, mental toughness, accountable for actions, selfless commitment to the team – and many more.

Rewarding Natural Talent?

All too often, the high performers in terms of the skills necessary for whatever would be considered scoreboard success in your realm happen to be more talented than others at performing the skills necessary for that kind of success. They may have worked hard to get to that level, and that’s a good thing.

But they also may not have worked as hard as they could have to achieve those awards. They may have been naturally gifted without much of their success coming from anything special they did to achieve it. They may just be bigger, faster, stronger, smarter, more charismatic, or more something else than other people in the organization, so things worked out well for them.

Are you thinking of anyone on any of your teams like that right now?

What did they do to deserve their rewards?

They performed at a high level at whatever it is in your realm that needs to be performed. Yes, they should be rewarded for that.

But the other people in your organization who didn’t perform at that same level but who did everything possible to be their best and to help your organization be its best deserve reward and recognition for what they did, too.

After all, aren’t those the people who truly embody and exemplify all that you want your team members to be?

Then why wouldn’t you reward them for their participation?

They may not have been leading scorers, or won the most matches, or hit all of the highest sales or performance goals. But they were just as important to your organization’s success as those who did.

And they should be recognized and rewarded for it.

MVP – No More

Like most sport coaches, I used to have our team vote for an MVP — Most Valuable Player. I grew to hate that award.

One reason was the “v” in it — it stands for “valuable.” Yet, so often, people who won MVP awards were not the most valuable performers on the team. They just happened to be more skilled or scored more points or did something else that led to victories or personal success. But other players were often more valuable to our team and to what we accomplished.

The other problem with the MVP award was it often went to a player who, while highly skilled and talented, did little of all those other things that we considered to be the most important to being part of our team. They didn’t work as hard as they could have, lacked discipline with the team or in their classes, struggled the moment things got tough, didn’t like being held accountable for their actions, or weren’t good teammates. They were not the embodiments of all that we stood for as a program.

Yet, here we were, giving them one of the highest honors in our program.

I hated that.

So I got rid of it.

Rewarding What is Most Important

I started rewarding the things that we wanted in our program. After listening to and then talking with Bruce Brown of Proactive Coaching, it got me thinking about what I was rewarding and what I should be rewarding instead. His ideas became the catalyst for me to start basing our awards on the team’s covenants — the values and standards that we, as a team, decided at the beginning of the year that we wanted to stand for.

I always gave a plaque to our Most Improved Player because getting better every day was one of our goals and standards, so I kept that award. But then, I started rewarding our players with plaques based on whatever our covenants were that year — things like Hardest Worker, Best Teammate, and Most Enthusiasm.

Our final award was our Ultimate ____________ (fill in the blank with whatever our mascot was). This plaque went to the player who best exemplified ALL of our covenants. This was the highest honor one could receive in our program.

The players and coaches all voted on these, and each one’s vote counted the same as anyone else’s.

90% of the time, the players who I voted for to win these awards were the same players the majority of their teammates voted for, too. When you reward things like effort, discipline, and commitment to team, it’s fairly simple to see who best embodies those qualities.

In fact, the only time it became a problem was on the best teams that I coached because many people embodied those characteristics. I’m not talking about “best teams” in terms of scoreboard success, but in terms of being a great team in every sense of what we had determined at the beginning of the year would make us a great team — our covenants.

There are a few benefits to rewarding team members this way.

First, every player on the team has an equal chance to win an award. These awards are not going to be reserved for just the most talented people. In fact, I have had and I have seen teams where the most talented players — those receiving “all-star” types of accolades from others due to their high skill level — didn’t win any of the team awards.

Another benefit of rewarding these types of values that you want is that you then get more of those values on your teams. Once you start rewarding those kinds of values, your team members will work to display more of those values.

Isn’t that exactly what you want?

Isn’t that why you chose to have those values as your team’s covenants in the first place?

Finally, your chances of having more scoreboard success go up. If you have more people performing the way you want them to perform in terms of the qualities mentioned above, there will be a natural skill progression for all of the members of the team who are displaying those qualities. The better they get at the team’s values, the better they will get at their skills necessary for success on the team.

Rewarding Participation

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, that’s not what I mean by participation trophies. I’m talking about giving them something for just showing up.”

I get that, and I agree to some degree. I didn’t give out “trophies” for just showing up. Trophies or plaques were reserved for those who did something above and beyond.

However, I still gave out a Participation Certificate to every kid who finished out their seasons.

To put in all that time and effort to being part of the team took a sacrifice on their parts. At the end-of-season banquet, I felt that EVERY kid deserved to receive something and to have his or her name called out and come up and be recognized for being committed to our team in that way.

I also hope that years from now, when they are moving somewhere and they unpack a box with memorabilia from their past, they will come upon their certificate and remember fondly their time in our program.

So, yes, I believe that we should recognize participation in some way. After all, one of my main goals every year with all my teams — from youth sports through varsity athletes — was that they wanted to come back and play the next year. I wanted them all to want to participate again, so I made sure to recognize their participation each year.

If you think I am contributing to the softening of America by doing that, I’m sorry you feel that way.

But hopefully, you will see that by also rewarding them with a plaque the things that truly matter — effort, discipline, accountability, selflessness, etc. — I am actually making America stronger because I am trying to get kids to embrace those qualities that truly make us the best that we can be.

How about you? Where do you fall on this?

What awards do you give out to your teams?

Do you reward participation and your team’s values, or do you only reward some form of scoreboard success?

Why do you give out the awards you give out?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and start a discussion on this. Leave a comment below, and let’s get this party started!