Reisterstown rec baseball is ending its longtime practice, shared by many other youth leagues, of handing out "participation trophies" at the end of the season to kids ages 4-8. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)
For years, Reisterstown Baseball has given trophies to its youngest players — those ages 4 through 8 —for showing up.
But before the current season began, the youth league posted a new message on its website for parents of its youngest two divisions: "There will not be any participation trophies or medals handed out."
"It's just going back to the thought that you only get a trophy if you win," said Andy Paladino, commissioner of the program. "I'm not going to change the world. My thoughts were to go back to the past."
Participation trophies — as much a part of youth sports leagues as orange slices and twisted ankles — still provoke a sharp cultural debate over how best to build children's self-esteem. Around Maryland and the across the country, soccer, baseball and other programs are grappling with whether to provide the generic awards, given to all players, no matter the team's record.
Some parents say the trophies are uplifting and foster a sense of belonging. Others say they illustrate an American tendency to coddle children, promoting narcissism. Pundits mock millennials — those born roughly between 1980 and the mid-2000s — as the "Participation Trophy Generation."
"Everybody has their own opinions," said Sara Kessler. Her 6-year-old son, Mason, is among 350 players in Reisterstown Baseball.
Paladino, an investment adviser, said rewarding young people for showing up can lead to lingering feelings of entitlement.
"I would be interested to see how some of these kids who received them in the past are doing at their jobs now," he said.
There has been little pushback against the new policy.
"If you're the champ, you get a trophy," said Richard Bush, whose 8-year-old son, J.T., is in the program. "You have to learn to take the good with the bad."
Not all the parents agreed. In the youngest Reisterstown divisions, the players are mostly developing skills and working to understand the sport. At a recent game, the pitchers were adults bending on one knee to deliver the ball to pint-sized batters. When children weren't in the game, they chased one another and joked with friends.
At such early ages, Reisterstown baseball parent Corinna Acie says, she continues to endorse participation trophies, which typically feature nondescript sports figures mounted on platforms containing the name of the league.
"A 5-, 6-year-old, I think it's appropriate," Acie said. "I think in that moment everyone's there to applaud them and they're all receiving something so no one feels left out."
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"Not that he ever has. He's incredibly competitive."
Kessler said she broke the news of the league's decision to her son recently. The league says players 4 to 6 will get certificates — and the 7- and 8-year-olds could get them as well — but not trophies or medals.
"He's OK with it," she said. "Maybe the team can go out for a pizza party afterward. That's always fun. All kids like pizza."
Even programs that swear by the trophies face problems.
"The struggle we have is when do you stop giving them," said Craig Blackburn, executive director of the Soccer Association of Columbia, which has 6,000 players. Nearly half of them — 2,600 young people ages 4 to 11 — receive participation trophies or medals.
"There has to be an age group that starts teaching kids that you need to make an effort into improving your baseball skill development in order to finish the best you can," league president Robert Richardson said. "Whereby just being a participant will no longer be enough to receive a trophy."
"At some point you've got to brush your teeth without getting a gold star," agreed Ryan Mihalic, a coach with Reisterstown Baseball.
Participation trophies became popular decades ago.
Researcher Ashley Merryman is author of "Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing."
"In the 1980s, self-esteem building became an educational priority really kicked off by the state of California," she said. "At the same time, the mass production of trophies kicked in. Now we can crank out thousands of medals — plastic and tin — instantly."
Merryman said the message implicit in participation trophies is potentially damaging.
"First and foremost, we need to learn that mistakes and failures are okay. We don't have to actually pretend that every time we go out, we win," she said. "Over time, this is giving the message that nothing is worth doing unless you get acclaim and recognition. It's overpraise. That's really what it is."
But other professionals say such concerns are overblown.
"It's basically giving a kid a high five for playing through an entire season," said Chris Stankovich, a sports counselor and author. "It's difficult for a kid who may not see the field often to be motivated to be there. I have no problem at all with the first-place teams getting bigger trophies. But to completely eliminate basic participation awards I think misses the point."
The issue has been stoked by athletes and coaches whose strongly held opinions — usually against participation trophies — have echoed around social media.
At some point you’ve got to brush your teeth without getting a gold star.
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"I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies!" former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison wrote on Instagram a few years ago. He posted a photo of the trophies marked "student-athlete award" with the name and logo of the program at the top.
"I'm sorry I'm not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I'm not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best," Harrison wrote.
After a 2016 loss to Maryland, Louisville women's basketball coach Jeff Walz told reporters the outcome came down to will.
"Right now, the generation of kids that are coming through, everybody gets a damned trophy," he said. "Okay, you finish last, you come home with a trophy. You kidding me? What's that teaching kids?"
Online companies offer gag gifts deriding participation awards. One promotes a roll of toilet paper with "Participation Trophy" in block letters.
Stankovich has a theory for why the debate is so enduring.
"I think one reason is the millennial generation — of which I'm not a part — gets knocked so much that there is a natural tendency to look at the origins of how we got here," he said. "I think it's an erroneous leap of faith to think it's possible a few participation awards when they were 5, 6 or 7 have somehow corrupted their maturity."
Mike Singletary, chairman of the board of James Mosher Baseball, a Baltimore youth league, said, "I know there's been a lot of conversation" about the potential effects of the trophies.
Singletary said James Mosher Baseball attempts to strike a balance by distributing trophies to every player in its in-house league, which encompasses ages 4 to 12, but also handing out individual awards.
"There is rookie of the year, unsung hero, most valuable and most improved," he said. "Only four kids can get those individual awards on each team, and how do you get the other kids to come back?
"They may not ever be able to get one of the individual awards. Every kid comes and works hard. They come to the games, they come to the practices. It's just an incentive we felt we wanted to do."