Aug 20, 2015

The Trophy Controversy: how figure skating gets it right

My friend Josette Crosby Plank set off a firestorm by defending "participation trophies." I wish you could see her Facebook page, because it's been dominated by this since it went up. I've pretty much taken a vacation all week to keep up with it.

All I can say is, don't read the comments.

The issue at hand: youth sports that hand out trophies, ribbons, and medals like candy, regardless of skill or outcome. Pro? Make sure all the players feel like part of the team, and keep kids in youth sports. Con-- Special Snowflake Syndrome, wherein children are led to believe they are the center of the universe and deserve, if I may use internet parlance, All The Things.

When I was in sixth grade, I was the only child on my hockey team who did not get a letter or trophy, because I had not "earned" it. I did not then and do not now know what it was I was supposed to have done-- scored a goal? (I did, I played wing and I was good.) Make every practice and/or game? (I didn't, but I'm pretty sure other kids also didn't.) Blow the coach? Seriously, I have no idea.

What I do know is that I never attempted to play another intramural sport and started cutting P.E. Clearly they didn't want me, so why even try.

Figure skating has long had two tracks-- USFS, with a performance metric (i.e. the goal is to win*), and ISI, with an experience metric (i.e. the goal is to be there).

In local USFS competitions (called "non-qualifying"), each "flight" or group of competing skaters is competing for Gold-Silver-Bronze. Flights can be as small as 5 and as large as 15; some competitions put multiple flights at stake for a single podium. In the big competitions–Regionals, Sectionals, Nationals–the end game is those three medals at Nationals. Essentially, 50,000 kids competing for about 400 medals in the 4 skating disciplines at 6 skill levels.

In ISI, anyone who signs up "qualifies," even at the Worlds and national competitions. Everyone who skates walks away with a ribbon or trophy. Flights are limited to 8, but 5-6 skaters is more common, so you cannot possibly do worse than 6th, and Auntie Sue is going think that's pretty damn cool.

I think it's pretty damn cool, too, and apparently so does USFS because a few years ago they introduced something called "test track" for kids who aren't going to be competing for those 400 medals. Compete as a test track skater and you get that "participation" trophy.

But the really interesting thing is that, unlike other youth sports, kids can keep competing in ISI through a very high level-- the hardest test in figure skating isn't USFS Senior. It's ISI level 10. Kids with quads compete at ISI.

The kids absolutely understand the difference. Under 10, they like to win, but they like the hardware when they don't win. When they start getting good and/or ambitious, they universally switch to USFS, where the trophies have a different meaning.

And there's the rub: ISI trophies say "good for you"  in a meaningful way. They reward hard work and focus. They both reward and encourage motivation. USFS figure skating trophies say damn you're good!

It doesn't have to be either or: you can reward both winning and work. If figure skating can figure it out, the rest of youth sports can too.

*I actually don't believe that at the lower levels of USFS the goal is winning, however, top performance is the driving motivation. At the qualifying level, personal goals may vary, but the general idea is you want to win.


  1. I'll put myself on record saying I do not like participation trophies. I don't even like participation medals. But I am 100% fine with a participant ribbon.

  2. What about certificates, ready for framing?

    1. Totally good with a certificate.

      I just think recognizing accomplishment should be elevated to a higher level than recognizing trying. A trophy is a big deal. Not everyone should get a trophy. (Besides, if you get one every time you participate- where the heck do you put those things?)

      (I also think the medals that ISU hands out at Worlds are ridiculous. Get those athletes something bigger than the size of a quarter!)

  3. I sometimes wonder about parents (and non-parent adults) who take the line about "compete for the medal, it will make you tougher!" Yeah, that's the way to discourage the majority of kids from ever making an effort in any kind of physical activity if the same few talented kids keep winning at everything. There are those that go to competitive levels, but the rest of kids learn a lot from figure skating that's not just physical. They learn how to deal with performing for a group (which will help them in future jobs where talking to a group is required, kids also learn how to deal with how to handle themselves in public such as when they have to share the ice, they learn how to schedule themselves and discipline themselves when no one is looking. They also learn how to live with disappointment without crying. And as they mature into a world where artistic expression is not valued, they find a place where their artistry is valued.
    So, for people who are all 'compete to win ; it's a cruel world' I wonder if they remember the parent or relative who let them win at games when they were young. Would these people feel their lives would be better if every time they played a game as a child, they lost? I mean eventually you have to compete and compete hard, but I don't think grade school is the place for that.

    And I just want to say that I am of the generation that never got any participation medal or any medal at all for any sport. I have no depth perception. People have obsessions with sports that involve throwing round things at me--I couldn't hit/catch/or dodge one on a bet.

  4. I liked the article you linked to - and I like yours, too. I have twins that skate ISI - and they know exactly what the medals mean. They race to see where they placed after their events... Sometimes they are unhappy ("I'll never be proud of this medal!"), but usually by the time we get home, and they put it in their bedroom, it has become a souvenir for each event and competition they've participated in. They remember, "Remember our first competition, when I ran into the wall?" and "Remember how we didn't get last the first time we did Jump and Spin?" Isn't that the whole point? Especially when they forgo nearly all other recreational activities to be at the rink... Is a wall full of bling really such an unfair tradeoff? ;)