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Awards for Placing or Participating

Should participation awards be given to youth sport athletes?


Many youth sports, like soccer, football, >cheerleading, hockey, baseball, and softball, give the team members participation awards at the end of the season. That is a good business for the trophy and plaque industry, but I do not believe that type of award is worth the material it is made from; that is my opinion, and while it may sound harsh, but it is not meant to be.

There are some people that share the same opinion, and some that do not. OK, you do it your way, I will do it mine. Getting a trophy for being part of the team, for showing up, is not right; a trophy is for placing, for wining, for finishing second, third, etc. It is a competitive award, not simply recognition. A participation award is a recognition award; the person is recognized as being present, maybe for trying, but not for actual competitive achievement. Is that worthy of an award? Not very often. I think that, in the end, the youth athletes probably come out ahead if they are awarded for doing something instead of awarded for showing up (that sounds harsh, too - sorry).

How does that opinion impact swimming (this is About Swimming, isn't it?). At swim meets, swimmers show up and swim. They might get a personal best time, a season best time, they might win a heat, they might finish in the top three or top eight. Which of those things deserve a tangible reward, like a medal or a ribbon? Should swimmers get a participation award for a swim meet? Should they get an award for earning a personal best time? What about winning a heat? You may be able to guess my thoughts on this one... read on.

The short answer is no, I do not think that awards for swimmers based on participation are worthwhile. Agree or disagree (and I am happy to hear all sides), participation in a competitive sport at the competitive level is not what should be awarded, at least not in the same way that would be used for a competitive award. I define achievement in a competitive swim meet as placing. Not showing up, not performing skills properly, not getting a best time, but placing. The other things might be achievements, but they are not the central focus of a competitive swim meet. Competition is person vs. person. Placing, not trying. Trying is paramount to everything else, but it is not what should d be awarded.

Brand new swimmers, in a practice swim meet with their swim team, might earn a certificate for meeting a specific set of goals, like doing all four competitive strokes (freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly) legally. That would be very clear from the beginning, the goal of this meet, winning at this meet, is performing all four strokes correctly. Anything less is not winning. Not winning is not the same as failing, but the award is for winning, not for anything less in this setting. If they do not get it the first time, they can try it the next time. They get a specific set of criteria, they work on those skills, and they test those skills. The swimmers do not get an award for just showing up, they get awarded for meeting goals. What is required to get a tangible award in that environment is clearly defined ahead of time, everyone knows it, and everyone has something to work toward. Once they reach that level, they are now ready to move into the competitive environment. They have the skills to compete at some level in a swim meet in a larger setting. Being able to perform the strokes properly is a great achievement, but it is not the same as competing, and, if it is to be recognized / awarded, then it should be done in a way that is different from the way used to award achievement in a competitive setting.

They might not be fast, but they have the skills. The speed may come later, or it might not, but they have the skill set to be in the game.

Competitive swim meets that most swimmers go to may not be the same speed as the Olympics, but they are a competitive setting, a place to race! Racing involves achievement, and in my own set of definitions, in a competitive swim meet setting, achievement is placing, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. Depending upon the meet, a tangible award, like a ribbon or medal, is given to those swimmers that earn them based on their placing.

What about an award for achieving a personal best time in a swim meet? Swimming faster than ever before is an achievement, right? I agree, it is, but it is not worthy of the same kind of award that is earned by placing. A personal best might be worthy of a certificate, or simply a high-five, some praise, and big smile from the coach. Improving is expected, and meeting expectations is awfully close to showing up. It takes effort to improve, but an effort award, giving an award for trying, cannot be seen the same as an award for placing in the competitive environment.

Additionally, giving an award for participating can devalue an award for placing (devaluing that placing-based award, while possibly a good thing in the long run in terms of striving for excellence on its own merits, is an issue for the future). It dilutes the number of awards, leading to diminished value, when everyone gets one.

Finally, what about a heat winner award? That is wining, so should that be awarded? Maybe. Again, not in the same way that is used for placing. If the meet has a sponsor, then one great way to use that sponsor's support is via heat winners. Coupons, a pen with advertising on it, things like that recognize the winner of a heat, are not the same type of award used for placing, and get the sponsors message out to more swimmers.

What do mean by all of this? I hope that the encouraging words from parents, friends, and coaches, the smiles and high fives, helps to keep the swimmers motivated, helps them to push themselves, drives them to strive for personal success, and helps them to keep working for the chance to win a competitive achievement award, whether they get that award or not. Working toward getting one - or two, or more... is just one of the things I want for the swimmers. But in the end, for most swimmers, I do not want a tangible award to be the reason a swimmer swims. I want them to want to swim, to want to be better, for the sake of being better. The #1 thing we want is for swimmers to be responsible, self-motivating, healthy people!

Swim on!

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