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HBO Examines Consequences of 'Trophy Culture' in Youth Sports

On Tuesday, HBO's Real Sports featured a segment on the potential ramifications of the "trophy culture" in youth sports, in which youth-athletes receive trophies for participation rather than athletic success.

In the segment, correspondent Bernard Goldberg spoke with Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, about how awarding trophies to all participants, rather than a limited few, could have unforeseen consequences.

"This isn't even a trophy for effort or trying," Twenge said. "It's a trophy for participation. It sets the bar pretty low.

"A trophy puts in his head that whatever he did was good enough, even when it clearly wasn't," she continued. "That's not how the real world works."

Goldberg traces the youth-sports "trophy culture" to the self-esteem movement that caught fire a generation ago. While the movement was widely ridiculed in its early days, it also began to gain in popularity, as Education Week covered in the early '90s. In California, more than 30,000 copies of a state task force report, "Toward a State of Esteem," were distributed within a year's time back then.

Researcher Ashley Merryman, who has written extensively about the self-esteem movement, explained to Goldberg its unintended consequences.

"We thought that especially for kids in struggling communities, if we just told them they were great, they would believe it and then they could achieve, because they were certain they were great," Merryman said. "And sports, Little League coaches, teachers, anyone working with kids, said, 'Well, how do we build kids' self-esteem? We give them stickers that say you're great and we'll give them a trophy, we'll give them a medal. ... None of it works."

She fears that handing all children a trophy will cause kids not to "be engaged in the process of improving," as they'll already feel like "a winner." Later on down the road, if that child struggles—either athletically or in the classroom—the child may believe the blame lies elsewhere, not on their own shoulders.

C. Robert Cloninger, a doctor at Washington University in St. Louis, told Goldberg that awarding trophies to all youth-athletes could have negative biological impacts, too.

"The technical term is the 'partial-reinforcement extinction effect,'" Cloninger said. "All that means is that if you constantly reward a kid, you spoil them, and you don't build a capacity for them to be resilient to frustration."

While the full episode is only available to HBO subscribers, the network posted an abbreviated trailer on YouTube:

"If we want our kids to succeed, we can't pretend that they don't also fail," Goldberg concluded after speaking with Cloninger. "We certainly can't give them a trophy every time they do."

"We have to get over the notion that everyone has to be a winner in the United States," Cloninger said.

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