Right off the bat

Do childhood participation trophies make for better athletes later in life?

Dr. Dean Hinitz is a sports psychologist who sees patients at his midtown practice.

Dr. Dean Hinitz is a sports psychologist who sees patients at his midtown practice.

Photo/Matt Bieker

Dr. Dean Hinitz has been a sports psychologist for 30 years, is a former collegiate gymnast, has worked with Team USA and is the parent of two athletes himself. Hinitz said it’s not a matter of whether or not kids should receive participation trophies for being involved in youth sports, but instead it’s about determining what age is appropriate to celebrate participation and determining what other elements are important in sports.

According to Hinitz, around age 5 is a suitable time to give children participation trophies.

“Kids delight in their very first trophy, but after that we start developing criteria for improvement, for excellent play, for place finishes so [kids] can start making distinctions,” said Hinitz.

He agrees that winning and losing is a component of sports that children need to understand eventually, but Hinitz said that a child’s youth sports experience should not begin with that mentality. You want to acknowledge your child and let them know they’ve been seen, and they tried their very best in the game, and at that early age it’s okay to reinforce that behavior, win or lose, with a reward, according to Hinitz.

As children move up the developmental ladder throughout elementary school, Hinitz said that participation trophies lose their meaning.

“Trophies and rewards mean something as long as they mean something, and thanking anyone for showing up means a ton when you’re 5,” said Hinitz. “It doesn’t mean a lot when you’re 15. It doesn’t even mean a ton when you’re 10. Kids are smart enough to start recognizing that there’s, sort of, individual performance outcomes.”

However, it’s not all about the outcome of a child’s performance, either. According to Hinitz, coaches have to learn to reward the process elements of sports, like the focus of making a great swing, or the effort it takes to sprint to first base, as opposed to the mathematical results of athletic involvement, like how many points were scored.

He said he’ll ask youth basketball players if they can make a great free throw shot every time, and their response is “no,” but he’ll then explain to young players, “Yes, you can make a great free throw shot every time, you just can’t make all of your shots,” reinforcing that elements like focus, attention, effort, commitment and rigor should be recognized in our sports culture just as much as scoring points.

Winning attitude

Hinitz said another problem within our society is if you try something and make a fool of yourself, the effort it took to try in the first place is overshadowed by the negative outcome.

“When someone misses a field goal, we all make fun of them as opposed to celebrating the courage to put their cleat in the grass and take a swing at a ball with their leg,” said Hinitz. “What’s been lost is when a little girl falls off the balance beam, we all say, ’Oh she messed up her routine,’ as opposed to all great respects to those who get on a balance beam.”

According to Hinitz, outstanding coaches reward true mental toughness, which is the willingness to be vulnerable, exposed and to try. Excellent coaches don’t shame their athletes for missing, they celebrate their athletes for wholehearted effort, or when they’re 5, for simply showing up and giving the sport a try.

“We think mental toughness is falling down and getting up again, and that’s an element of it, but the highest level of mental toughness is saying, without any defenses, without any protection at all, ’I’m swinging from my heels, I’m leaping across the floor, I’m serving with all of my heart,’” said Hinitz.

He said that there’s also underlying messages everywhere in our culture that effort, difficulty and trying are all bad. He said that almost every product around us from garage doors to remotes is designed to teach us that effort is bad and should be avoided at all costs.

“Where most people are striving to avoid [effort], great coaches say this is good,” said Hinitz. “It’s good to move. It’s good to be tired at the end of the day, to feel something that normal people don’t feel, which is physically exhausted. It’s a hard thing to teach, but it’s an amazing thing to teach.”

Another element of excellent coaching is creating a true love of the game. Hinitz has also coached a fair amount of youth sports, and, when he asks younger kids what they love about it, they talk about how fun the movements are in their sport and what it feels like to fly, jump and twist. When he asks college-age athletes what they love about their sport, he’ll get responses about a gymnast scoring a 9.5 or a baseball player going three for four at the plate—these responses are no longer about the sport, they’re about mathematics.

Hinitz has discovered that if an athlete’s love of movement and passion for their sport prevails, even in a high pressure situation, they’ll perform better focusing on, say, the sensation of how good a back flip feels rather than honing in on a potential score.

“There’s a little kid in all of us—in most of us, and I hope it doesn’t get extinguished—that loves to run, jump, flip, catch, fall and get up again, and once we start keeping score, the joy in basic movement can be lost,” said Hinitz.