Trophies for participation: anti-development or irrelevant?

The discussion and how it pertains to soccer in America
by Austin Farrow   |   Monday, September 07, 2015

US Soccer Federation (USSF)

On August 15th, news broke surrounding NFL and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, James Harrison. Harrison, 37 now, announced via Facebook that he would take away his son’s participation trophies “until they earn a real trophy.” Harrison added that, “Everything in life should be earned,” and that he’s, “not about to raise (two) boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best.”

He argues in the Facebook post that trying your best is sometimes not enough and that you should strive for the absolute best. Many wouldn’t argue with this sentiment. However, many would, as they did. Harrison’s stance made national headlines. That’s not surprising considering the ever-relevant discussion that is entitlement.

The topic was covered across the wide world of sports and it’s time we bring it to soccer. How does it pertain to the game in America, and is it a threat to player development from a young age?


The definition of the word entitlement according to Meriam-Webster is, “the feeling or belief that you deserve to be given something”. The argument of many on the side of Harrison is that the kids don’t feel entitled to a trophy but that they become entitled to things such as trophies once they receive one for virtually nothing but participation. Not only is it believed that it could affect them in the future, but it’s also a concern that, as adults, they may not work as hard to better themselves.

Hypothetically, but realistically, let’s say a U13 boys’ team gets participation trophies for each player. The best player on the team gets the same trophy as the worst player. There’s a valuable lesson in this that will be discussed further down but this very lesson may just be detrimental to that player’s future as a player.

There’s an important question that arises here. Are participation trophies anti-development? Do they instill a sense that kids can get what they “deserve” regardless? Soccer is most likely the most intelligent sport in the world. Given this, it’s important to be vigilant of the message that is sent to youth players. It’s a mental game and it’s important to teach and preach the right mentality to incentivize and enlighten America’s next soccer stars.

Is this important to America however? Is it important that America teaches a strong mentality and work rate from a young age? It’s important to many from the aspect of children in general but it’s also quite possible many of your “Harrisonites” see soccer as a participation sport. Unfortunately, despite immense strides in this country, the sport isn’t taken as seriously from a young age as it is abroad or even in other sports.

Even at a competitive level, there’s a wide understanding in American soccer that there’s a lack of respect for the craft and technique in the sport from parents and coaches. It isn’t about development like it is for Harrison, though his concerns also probably involve their future, in general.

Look no further than USSF. Go to the USSoccer website and read such rhetoric more concerned with organization and participation than technique and solidified teaching for youth players.

Seeking answers, we sought out former West Brom Albion youth coach Paul Gibbons. Gibbo, as many refer to him, had an anti-participation trophy outlook. “They don’t do participation trophies (anywhere else in the world),” Gibbo exclaimed.

Gibbo went on to explain to me that he’s never utilized participation trophies in his many decades coaching youth players, while coaches across the country, whether recreational, competitive, or higher, have. We continue to chat about the current American soccer landscape before we highlight, arguably, his most important quote of all. Gibbo strongly affirms, “We glorify mediocrity in this country.”


While many, including Gibbo, believe the participation trophy route is a dangerous one, there’s a completely different side to be argued here as well. Are participation trophies something to keep kids from feeling left out? More importantly, is a participation trophy simply irrelevant to player development?

To answer the former and maybe even the latter, we shall take LA Galaxy’s Baggio Husidic as an example. Let’s pretend the Galaxy are a youth team. Baggio is a player who joined the Galaxy before the 2014 season and is with them still as they look to repeat as MLS Cup champions. He has never been LA’s best players, or even one of their best. However, he’s always lent a helping hand. He’s always been there to provide support and depth, while he rarely puts in a bad shift.

You may ask where this is going. Well, doesn’t Baggio deserve something for his efforts? He’s an unpaid, unrewarded, yet deserving, Bosnian kid playing in America. If not for participation trophies, if this hypothetical youth team doesn’t win a tournament or league trophy, Lil’ Baggio gets nothing. If you give out trophies to just the best player or players, like some advocate, you’re alienating some kids and that can be a dangerous route as well, for obvious reasons.

There’s also an angle that questions how much trophies truly matter to children. They certainly matter to the children in that moment and during times in their youth career but there’s uncertainty to whether the collection or non-collection of a trophy truly leaves a lasting effect on a human’s life. You can’t know for sure and it certainly depends on the person. You obviously can’t generalize and come up with a reasonable solution to this matter.

Perhaps participation trophies are irrelevant to the development conversation. However, they may also be a reminder of a complacency and lack of serious nature in their relation to the sport of soccer and America. 


Indian River State
Club Domestic:
All MLS clubs
Club Foreign:
Manchester City
Bringing you news on soccer players across MLS and American players playing in top leagues around the world, Austin is a journalism major who enjoys the fine arts. He doesn't favor one club over another, but just enjoys all MLS play.