You Have to Fail Before You Can Succeed

As mentioned from my week 30 update from yesterday, John’s thoughts deserved an entire post unto itself. I love the thoughtful topics he comes up with and can’t wait to read the comments on this one. Without further adieu, here’s my wonderful husband:

John’s Thoughts: As we are now under 10 weeks until the arrival of our little one, I have began thinking about the ramifications of being a role model and teacher throughout his whole life. Specifically, I spent a lot of time this week pondering the pervasive societal idea that “everyone gets a trophy.” What I mean by that is it seems society is very quick to tell all little kids how super-special they are and this is best seen during youth (sub-jr. high) sports; everyone gets a small trophy at the end of the season. Doesn’t matter if they couldn’t hit the ball with a bazooka or were Babe Ruth incarnate, everyone gets a trophy. I, for one, completely disagree with this ideology.

asian kid trophy

I am not saying kids aren’t special, because they absolutely are! Every single one is a precious gift and every single one has talents and abilities that make them special. They also deserve praise and recognition for their accomplishments (learning their colors, learning to tie their shoes, winning the game, etc.) However, telling everyone how awesome they are all the time and giving them trophies for nothing is actually detrimental to fostering their unique talents. Incentive is a driving force in life. If you give kids trophies for no reason, you remove all incentive for them to practice their talents so they get better and actually achieve something fantastic (which is then commemorated with a trophy). Currently, they realize it doesn’t matter if they try or not because they’re going to get a trophy regardless. When they play sports or start school, a loss or a mistake shouldn’t be seen as this “OH NO THEY LOST! YOU’RE A TERRIBLE CHILD!” situation; actually those are the best teaching moments.

fuzzy hair trophy

I believe it is our job as parents to help our child realize that, although he feels bad for making a mistake, he needs to understand and learn from that mistake. He won’t always win trophies for what he does but he needs that incentive to achieve so he does get trophies. This is very beneficial later in life. At work, if you screw up a job for your boss, he isn’t going to come to you and say “Oh it’s OK John! You tried, here’s a trophy!”  (also it would be weird for your boss to keep baseball trophies in his office to hand out to employees). No, your boss is most likely going to be upset with you. But as an adult, how do you rectify the situation? You push yourself harder to 1) never make that mistake again and 2) be even better at your job to demonstrate that your previous mistake doesn’t define you as an employee. Similarly, kids need to learn early in life that nothing is ever handed to them. They will make mistakes; they will not be the best at everything all the time; and they are not “entitled” to receiving recognition for their accomplishments if they didn’t actually accomplish anything. They need to not be afraid to mess up and to learn from those times when they faltered to push themselves to be the best. After trying their hardest to improve on their mistakes and to actually be the best, their trophy/recognition is going to be all the more enjoyable.

To wrap up, here is a great quote by one of the greatest basketball players to play the game that I feel speaks to what I wrote above:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” — Michael Jordan

What do you think about the “everyone gets a trophy” philosophy? How do you plan on teaching your kids it’s okay to make mistakes?


  1. 1

    For the most part, I do agree, especially when it comes to the new trend in schooling for building self-esteem instead of the tell-it-as-it-is philosophy that I grew up with. Not everyone earned As in every subject, and that’s okay. If everyone had, it would take the meaning out it completely.

    However, the sports trophies that I’ve already received in grade school were participation-based, kind of like a “good job” for sticking through the season and not giving up. I’m not sure if they have changed since then, but I don’t see an problem with this. My parents always stressed that if you make a commitment, you stick with it, and the end-of-season trophy was reinforcement for that. I never felt that receiving one meant that I was an amazing athlete, just that I tried and didn’t give up. Plus, there was always the individual awards like MVP, most improved, and most spirited that were based on merit. But this is just my personal experience with it!

    • 2

      I understand what you mean and I agree that part of the accomplishment (when you’re young) is sticking to your commitments. I still believe that the trophy for participation is a bit much. When I had played youth sports our “participation award” was typically a party. To be honest, I was much more excited about having a party with pizza and cake. Either method is fine as long as the reward is for something tangible.

  2. 3

    Woo hoo! I totally agree. Kids today are over indulged in every way. In addition to getting a trophy for every non-achievement they also have parents that get them a cell phone at age 9, buy them 3 different video game consoles and enroll them is endless travel teams, etc. Kids don’t have to earn anything anymore. I wonder how this is going to impact not only the child but also our country once they grown up. Scary! If kids are allowed to actually PLAY with other kids in a non-official setting (gasp – maybe even outside!) they will learn these lessons from their peers. The other kids will pick you last if you suck, not play with you if you are mean or cry all the time, etc. These things aren’t fun to go through but they help you strive to do better and improve as a person.

  3. 4

    totally agree! you guys are going to be great parents. i hope to bring the same balance to my kids some day. they don’t need to be rewarded for everything. learning how to lose graciously and realize they can’t be the best at everything is just as important!

  4. 5
    Shannon Howell says:

    I disagree to a certain degree- I am under the assumption especially with the YMCA sports program that most of the sports trophy’s are participation based as Sarah mentioned above. I believe those programs are good because they teach team building, good sportsmanship, etc and the trophy at the end is something to look forward to for keeping up with the team and not quiting. I think these programs are good for getting children out of their shell and meeting other children. Dance was important to me because I was an only child and it allowed me to be social with other kids my age.

    Even with professional sports their are incentives for staying on with the the team the whole season- for example if a team wins the Super Bowl every player and every office worker gets a superbowl ring. It doesn’t matter if their was a third string quarterback who never completed a pass, I believe they all still get a ring. Whether this is fair or not– I’m not one to say but it’s follows the same principal of particpating on a team or for the team.

    I do agree with John in teaching kids to reach for their goals and teaching that their are going to be times where mistakes or losses happen and we need to learn from those lessons.

    • 6

      I actually had this discussion with Katie last night; certain events like the Super Bowl and running a Half Marathon (where you get a medal if you finish) are a different situation. In those cases being a part of the team that wins the Super Bowl or completing a Half Marathon isn’t something (most) people can just wake up one morning and say “ok I’m going to go do that.” In my opinion this isn’t applicable to youth sports. I absolutely agree about the importance of being involved in sports as a kid for a huge number of reasons (socializing, health, etc.). My point is that I think having a party and positive reinforcement from parents is much more of an incentive/reward for a child being part of team, showing good sportsmanship, etc. I think there still needs to be special commendation (trophy, extra pizza, whatever) for those kids that did exceptionally well.

      • 7
        Shannon Howell says:

        I really didn’t think about it from the prospective but I agree with you. I do also agree that better participation incentives could be used such as a pizza party and save the trophys for outstanding performance awards or things of that nature.

        Great post and you guys are going to be excellent parents!

  5. 8

    Wow. This is awesome. I totally agree with this line of thinking AND think you two are going to be amazing parents to your little one!! Yay for you both!

  6. 9

    Completely agree. In a recent issue of The Atlantic the author discusses a cause for a growing number of twenty-somethings reporting depression is the everybody wins mentality they experienced in their youth.

    One woman’s thoughts: “My parents made everything I did so amazing and wonderful that now, when things aren’t over top wonderful I feel like it’s a let down.” (paraphrased)

    • 10

      That is a fantastic point. If kids don’t learn that they aren’t going to “win” every time, when they become adults or young adults they are going to be in for a rude awakening. I think a corollary to this is if you look at the difference in study habits. I had friends in college who would barely do any studying/preparation for tests, bomb them, then project their failure on the test being unfair, the professor asking unfair questions, etc. While at the same time I had friends who busted their butt day in and day out and did just fine. If kids don’t learn that “hard work = achievement” they’re going to be in this same situation of confusion when everything isn’t just handed to them.

  7. 11

    I honestly think it depends on the age of the child and what they are playing. I have very active boys who play sports. We play recreational and we also play travel ball and school ball. In recreational they do all get a trophy and I think that is a good thing for the younger child and also for participation purposes. As they progress along as athletes I do think it is important for them to learn that we are not all the same, and you have to work your behind off to become the #1 starter player. Those lessons definitely come through in on the competitive level vs the recreational. As a Mama I will say it stinks when your child busts his behind 3 games a day and they come in 3rd place no trophy but that’s life. But its oh so great as a Mama when they win and your kid made the winning play etc. We are currently at the Middle School and Tball levels at my house so wide ranges. In Middle School they don’t get trophies and thats OK. They play the best players on the field and if your not a starting player it if you want to be then you must work at it , show improvement and if the coach sees it he’ll play you. GREAT post thanks for sharing.

  8. 12

    I soooo do NOT get why “everyone” gets a trophy.
    When I was a kid (and granted that was a while go) but in track, if I didn’t place in top 3 I sure didnt get a trophy…
    and I’m glad I didn’ made me push harder so next race I would be in top 3!
    Everything is ‘handed’ to kids now and it’s not helping them for their future! Kids & teens are now at the “I’m entitled to it” stage because of this…
    not good!

  9. 13

    I very much support this way of thinking. As a staff member at a university, I see every day how rewarding children in that manner has affected the young adults they become. So many of these people feel such a sense of entitlement at this age for things that folks from previous generations understand that you must EARN and put forth MEANINGFUL effort to receive.

  10. 14

    I think it is imperative for young children just starting out playing group sports to get a participation award. Coming to practice very day and showing up to games is a real responsibility. It is up to the parents to teach the kids that once you make a commitment you follow through. (pet peeve of mind if you join an team and if something better comes along you miss a game/practice). To work hard and gain valuable ethics. Which includes showing up on time. Seeing trophies for MVP, highest batting average etc. is a goal they can strive for and not an automatic. When I say young children, I am referring to the first year or two, three at the most. After that the trophies really mean nothing even to the kids. For those of you who are not aware and have boxes of trophies, you can pull off the face plate and keep that as your memory and donate the rest of the trophy to the “Special Olympics”. Having a child who played elite sports, those kids who “felt entitled” and got special treatment bombed at college!! Some bombed at life. Their parents did nothing to help them in real life. Losing is a good thing. It makes you a stronger person. As I am sure we all know, not everyone can win. Like I tell my kids, there is a winner and a loser at each game. Work hard and strive for the win, but lose with dignity. On any particular day, anyone can win!!!

    On a side note: just because you win an award does not always mean you have earned it.

    • 15

      I certainly agree that kids keeping with their commitments is just as important as them playing the sport itself. At the young ages (1-3 yrs) I’m not certain how well they grasp the idea of trophies as I haven’t had the opportunity to observe that yet.

      On a separate note, I didn’t know you can donate trophies to the Special Olympics. That’s great info to know! Is all of that on the Special Olympics website?

  11. 16

    I agree. Also, I used to be a teacher and hated when other teachers gave out awards or prizes for simple things they should be doing anyway. I personally think this is making kids less assertive and independent.

    • 17

      I can remember my days of elementary school that we had a football field on the wall of the room and each student had their own “player.” After each test, students who received A’s moved 10 yards, B’s 5 yards, C’s 3 yards, and D’s 1 yard (or something like that). There was also bonuses for “most improvement” from test to test. Once you got to the end zone you were allowed to choose a piece of candy from the teacher’s hidden candy stash. I particularly liked this system as even if you weren’t a straight-A student, you still got a piece of candy but not as quickly. If you wanted your candy sooner, you had to work hard to improve your test scores. So while there was no punishment, per say, for doing poorly, there was certainly a reward for improving or doing well. It was an excellent incentive.

  12. 18

    Although I clearly understand your point, I have to ask you to consider the dark side of childhood: not all parents are created equal.
    I’m a great mom. I believe that parenting in s 24/7 job that doesn’t end at any magical age. I try to teach meaningful and encouraging lessons daily, and to teach a child that not everyone is the winner or the best gives ample opportunity for additional lessons: keep trying, believe (in yourself) to achieve, teamwork, cooperation… even ,the sometimes tough, hey I wasn’t cut out for this lesson. I tell my son, who is now eleven, we are each good at something, we each have our gifts… I’ve been a classroom volunteer, a cubscout den leader for three years and managed a youth hockey team… I try to lead by example…
    And now the dark side: all parents are not created equal… some parents dont have the mental capacity to be good role models for their kids, some are lazy, tired or uninterested, some are unkind… I’ve seen children in an affluent school system show up for kindergarten and not know how to draw with a crayon. I’ve heard parents who never have a kind word to say to their own child in public (can you allow yourself to imagine what they might say at home) I’ve seen kids cry from lack of encouragement or lack of parental participation. The worst is seeing a child who feels self defeated, without purpose or severely lacking confidence… For these children, perhaps the “everyone gets one” occasional certificate or trophy or award allows them to feel special, recognized and worthy…

    • 19

      I agree that sometimes positive reinforcement and support has to come from someplace different than the parents, especially when we are talking about people who shouldn’t be parents in the first place. In those cases having other people (like youth sports organizers) show the child encouragement is absolutely required. For my discussion above, I was writing under the presumption that all parents are generally good parents. Once we move to the “dark side” of parenting, that’s a whole other can of worms and a discussion in and of itself.

  13. 20

    I love this note Katie, we all need to realize that in almost every case, be it athletics or politics, business and personal, we all get better through our own experience regardless of the result. So it comes down to perseverance and carrying a positive attitude daily!

  14. 21

    I have coached soccer at virtually every level from 5-6 year old to high school for over 35 years. In addition, I have officiated soccer for over 28 years. I feel that today’s parents want to be the “body armor” to shield their little darlings fro the harsh realities that they WILL HAVE TO LEARN at sometime in their lives that things will not always go their way and that they will not always succeed. I strongly believe that our youth should be made aware of this fact sooner rather than later. I hate to imagine what my kids’ children will be subjected to as they get involved with youth athletics.

    I am presently working on a book entitled, “Hey Coach, Put My Kid In,” that will hopefully address this facet of “today’s youth athletics from the coaches, parents, administrators and, last but certainly not least, the players viewpoints. I cannot imagine what it is going to be like in twenty years.


  1. […] New Specs! Thank you for all your thoughtful comments on yesterday’s post! Learning your trophy philosophy is really interesting! If you haven’t read the post, be sure to check it out and read the […]

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