By Karen Coffin
One of the more visible jobs coaches perform is to give out trophies and awards at the end of a season to players who have distinguished themselves in some way. It’s visible because the presentation is usually public with players, parents and administrators present. The results are often reported in the media. It’s a time of excitement and pride, and it should be.
The giving of trophies, plaques etc., for exceptional performance is a long-standing tradition in athletics. No championship is complete without the trophy presentation. Recognizing achievement with an actual award is a great way to acknowledge and celebrate victories and individual successes during the season. Something has happened, however, to devalue the impact and appreciation of receiving trophies, especially the ones given by coaches at the end of the sports season.
We need to examine the causes of this devaluation more closely, so that awards will still be meaningful. Coaches have basic decisions to make in the process of giving awards. Who receives them? Who decides on who receives them? What do they reward? How many do you give? Who pays for them? Are they based on statistics or are they subjective? Does every player receive an award of some kind? Will there be a backlash of hard feelings or jealousy? Will they be special? Will they truly mean something to the players? Are there too many trophies? The answers to these questions are important.
Many coaches have struggled with these issues over the years, but the recent story of college athletes selling very special awards prompted a furor and a national discussion. Part of the uproar about the incident was wondering how these young men could sell such meaningful awards. Evidently, they were not so meaningful to them. Why not?
One possibility is that these athletes grew up in an era where everyone gets trophies and therefore, they are not particularly special. My guess is that in the good intentions to recognize the contributions of every player and promote self esteem, we overdid trophies and awards. They aren’t so special now.
Most coaches do want to reward every kid for their effort and success. Over the years, in hopes that all kids could feel appreciated, caring coaches and parents have tried to recognize the contributions of every player by increasing the number of trophies given. This has become a prevalent practice in youth sports, when each player often receives a trophy for participation.
In our excitement, we opted for bigger and fancier prizes. Sixth-graders have received bigger trophies than high school MVP’s. It has become commonplace to give awards based on every possible statistic. The intention has been to honor more players. The reality is that one player (the MVP) frequently receives several of the awards anyway.
Every year, there are truckloads of old trophies thrown away by older athletes. Do you still have every bowling trophy you ever won? How about the golf plaques or track medals received long ago? Generally, awards are kept around for a while to help us remember the accomplishment. Then, they get packed away only to be thrown out later when we are cleaning out “clutter” or downsizing.
The ones we keep are the really important ones to us; not necessarily the biggest ones. What makes them important? They’re the trophies from the competitions we had to work the hardest to win. If we persevered against big obstacles, we keep those trophies. When the contest was hard fought against first-rate opponents, we are really proud of that award and tell stories about it others.
There are two reasons why we give trophies in the first place. One is to recognize something special; especially a championship or a new record.
The other reason is to motivate. The Most Improved award is often given with the hope that the recipient will work harder before the next season. It is meant to be encouragement. Special trophies are often subjective – not based on statistics – and are ones we use to acknowledge actions that make the team better. A Coach’s Award is usually given to that great kid who may not have a lot of talent, but who works hard in practice. Team spirit is another attribute we like to recognize, and we should.
The question is how? Coaches who want to motivate kids, recognize superior performances and reward the intangibles, must find some new ways to do so. It has become pretty obvious that giving a bunch of hardware to a multitude of players isn’t working. It might make us feel better as coaches, but we have to find other ways; maybe ones that take a little more effort from us.
“Awards” can be given throughout the season, and they do not have to cost money. Verbal recognition for a job well done from a respected coach is enough to spur a player to greater effort. Stop practice to celebrate a particularly good play. Make someone “Captain for a Day” based on outstanding effort in a drill, and they will be a good example for everyone else. A positive comment, note or phone call to a player’s parent can be a great reward. It does take valuable time, but it’s worth every minute it takes. Reward what you want to see repeated. Don’t wait until the award program to make something important.
Two criteria are absolutely necessary for meaningful recognition. One is that it must be specifically earned in some way. If one doesn’t have to do much to get it, it isn’t worth much to receive. Second, a trophy isn’t a big deal unless it represents something that was a big deal. Making up categories to make sure everyone gets an award doesn’t impress anyone, including the kids.
Decide on specific goals you have for your team before the season. Then build your awards around those goals. Make certain that every trophy or award given is truly earned by the recipient. In giving awards just to make sure all are recognized, the award becomes less important. We must be more creative and think about what really will be meaningful. An unforgettable trophy does not need to cost a thing except some time and attention from a caring coach.
If you have given some unique awards that have proved to be popular and cherished by your players, would you please send the ideas to me at email@example.com? I will attempt to include them in another article and will credit you with the contribution. We can help each other turn trophies from clutter to treasures.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Karen Coffin, retired coach, writes a newspaper column about helping young athletes succeed in sports and is a facilitator for Ohio Coaching Education classes. Contact her at coachcoffin @cros.net.