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.