Noble: Participation trophies are awarded for grit, not just for showing up (column) |

Noble: Participation trophies are awarded for grit, not just for showing up (column)

Editor’s note: Find a cited version of this column at

The first year my son participated in cross-country running, he finished last in every race. Dead. Last. I was incredibly proud of him. Proud that he participated. Proud that he gutted it out every race. He never quit, never walked and never once complained.

The following year, he improved and was finishing toward the back of the pack, but no longer last. He improved even more this season, and at a recent meet hosted by Soroco High School in Oak Creek, he finished 30 in a field of 95 middle school boys.

At every meet, the fastest runners are recognized after every race, as they should. Yes, they still hand out ribbons for the fastest finishers. However, at a sports banquet held at the end of the season, every participant is recognized for his or her contribution to the team and growth as an athlete. Certificates are distributed that likely fall into the maligned category of the participation trophy.

According to conservative commentator Glenn Beck, “… bad parenting styles and participation-trophy mentalities are keeping millennials from succeeding.” The fact that millennials created companies such as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, Quora, Dropbox, Lyft, Tinder, Tumblr and Blue Apron, just to name a few, indicates that many millennials are succeeding just fine. was so concerned about the issue it conducted polling to determine how support for awarding participation trophies correlated to age, income and political belief. It will likely come as no surprise that older, wealthier Republicans despise them, while younger Democrats of modest means do not.

Rather than demeaning the very idea of recognizing participation, I wonder why it took so long. By participating in sports, these students are foregoing comfortable, effortless activities such as playing video games, watching television or otherwise staring at a screen. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, in 2015 only 39.9 percent of children ages 13 to 17 participated in sports. Sports participation requires that students leave their physical comfort zone and give up free time.

In Angela Lee Duckworth’s studies on success across a wide range of endeavors, one factor emerged as a “significant predictor of success … grit.” Duckworth found that grit mattered more than any other factor, including talent, whether it was the National Spelling Bee, West Point cadets or Chicago high school students. The grittier the kid, the more perseverance, stamina and goal-oriented they were. But Duckworth also acknowledged that little is known about building grit.

However, as Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, of the Child Mind Institute, observed, “We know that being able to tolerate discomfort is a wonderful life trait, and in addition to that, it makes children grittier and more resilient.”

Sports teach enduring discomfort. Running in freezing rain, playing football in the snow or sprinting toward the finish line with a competitor on your heels — in each case pushing past discomfort to reach a goal. You cannot do that from the comfort of a couch. And all of those instances are much more than simply “showing up.”

Furthermore, Carol Dweck, from Stanford University, proposed a theory called the “growth mindset.” Her research has shown that when failure is not framed in terms of finality but, rather, part of the process of growth on the path to future success, it ceases to be a demotivator. Rather than reinforcing the winner/loser dichotomy that so many seem to relish these days, recognizing participation feeds the growth mindset.

This is echoed by Dr. Jonathan Fader, who pointed out on an appearance on “Fox & Friends” that “research indicates we should be reinforcing our kids for their performance and their effort.”

The Glenwood Springs Devils hosted the final meet of the middle school cross-country season. As I stood near the finish line, my hands stinging from incessant clapping, I observed each of the racers who shot past me. Their faces were flushed and red, their hair was wet with perspiration, and their mouths were set in grimaces. Each runner poured the last of their energy into crossing the finish line at the fastest speed they had left in them, regardless as to whether they were first, last or somewhere in between. That is more than simply participation; that is the formation of grit, and it is an effort worthy of recognition.

Claire Noble can be found online at and “Claire Noble Writer” on Facebook.

Support Local Journalism