The debate over giving trophies in youth sports is attracting more attention than ever these days, with no easy answers in sight.

For every recreation department that presents a trophy, medal or certificate to each child who puts on a uniform and steps on the field, there is another department that simply hands out trophies to the kids who played on the first- and second-place teams.

Should wins and losses serve as the measuring stick for determining which young athletes receive hardware to display on their bedroom shelves? Or does simply having Mom or Dad sign a youngster up for a team--regardless of the child’s skill level, attitude or practice attendance throughout the season--entitle him or her to a shiny reward?

You’ve dealt with this issue. Your program has set policies in place. So what’s really the best approach?

The Great Debate

During the 2008 Youth Sports Congress--the event our organization puts on each year for youth-sports administrators and others involved in all aspects of youth-sports programming--we devoted a special session to this issue. It was a fascinating debate.

As I sat in the room that day and listened to the insights of these professionals from around the country and from military bases around the world, I couldn’t help but notice how diverse their opinions were on this topic.

On one side were administrators saying that the kids love receiving something for playing, and that by giving them a trophy--regardless of how hard they tried or how many games they won--helps emphasize the fact that they are just playing and having fun with the sport.

On the other side were those who felt awards should only be given to kids when accomplishments warrant them. They argued that recognizing kids--some who may not have given 100 percent during practices or games--sends a bad message that they can get by in life without putting forth their best effort.

Tough Call

Awhile back I had a conversation with a friend regarding this topic. I bet him that Chris Evert, while growing up, kept every trophy she won on her rise to tennis prominence. I believe that, for those elite athletes, the trophies served as positive reinforcements that they were traveling the right path. They could see that their hard work and dedication were paying dividends, their skills were evolving, and their passion for competition was thriving. The trophies they won fueled their desire to work even harder and practice longer to hone their skills.

Not every child, however, embraces competition. Not every youngster dreams of being an elite athlete. So what does a director of a youth league do when sifting for an answer in the trophy debate? It’s a tough call, one that perhaps can only be answered by the kids. My guess is that 90 percent of the trophies given to young people are long forgotten and disregarded as they move forward in life.

What do you think?

Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla., which has been advocating positive and safe sports for children since 1981. He is also the author of Why Johnny Hates Sports, which is available on He can be reached via e-mail at