One of the most competitive professional athletes of the last 20 years recently weighed in on our habit of handing out participation trophies in youth sports.
But Kobe Bryant didn’t say what you think he did.
The former Lakers’ great and future Hall of Famer recently relayed a story to broadcaster Al Michaels about his kid’s basketball team taking fourth place in a tournament. After the tournament, Bryant’s child was asked to stick around for the trophy ceremony.
“I said, ‘What ceremony?’ ”
“You guys get fourth-place trophies.”
“I was like, “What? Those exist?”
“So all the kids were disappointed. ‘We don’t want a fourth-place trophy.’ ”
“I said, ‘Well listen, get the fourth-place trophy, go home. You take the fourth-place trophy, you put it up right where you can see it, and when you wake up in the morning, you look at the trophy and you remind yourself of what you’ll never win again.”
For some, this is Bryant blasting the idea of participation trophies. But I don’t think that’s what he was doing here. Rather, he was telling his kids to use the fourth-place trophies as motivation.
Which is both silly and a distraction to the real reason our kids are getting soft, to the real scourge of youth athletics:
Yes, that’s right. Though what I’m talking about here isn’t simply juice.
Sometimes it’s cookies. Or yogurt-covered pretzels. Or fruit snacks, which are neither fruit nor snacks, unless you reboot by popping red-colored thimbles of congealed corn syrup into your mouth.
I’m also talking about mini ice-cream sandwiches, cartons of chocolate milk, bags of Twizzlers, and all the other sugary concoctions that fill up coolers and tote bags before they’re hauled off to Little League practice, to youth football practice, to nearly every outdoor sport played when it’s warm by 10-year-olds.
No, this isn’t ascreed against sugar addiction and the rise of children’s diabetes. It’s a plea to those well-meaning parents and rec-league coaches who are essentially bribing kids to play in a sport.
This is the real source of entitlement. This is what’s making us soft.
Not participation trophies. Or fourth-place ribbons. At least those speak to effort and competitive risk. At least those serve as a symbol of losing, which, as Bryant stated, can be turned into a call for determination.
But juice boxes?
Come on. It’s a tool for coddling.
Running, jumping, throwing, catching, water and, perhaps the occasional banana or orange slice, should be enough. The treats are best left at home.
Your kid doesn’t need them after practice, after games, between innings, at halftime. Mine didn’t. Yet I had to watch them gorge and, when the carefully crafted schedule dictated, provide the offending haul myself.
Yes, I protested. Yes, I was shamed. Snacks? What’s wrong with those?
Well, nothing, in a vacuum. Yet outside, on the playing fields, it’s what they represent. As if the sport itself, as if learning sportsmanship, as if learning to exist within a team, weren’t enough.
Bryant is right: trophies are what we make of them; and there is value in the process of learning how to win and to lose; and it’s up to us to discover motivation where — and when — we can.
So kudos to him, an all-timer whose bulldog résumé adds a more nuanced perspective to the discussion of participation trophies.
Now, if only he’d used his platform to rail against the true plague of youth sports.
Because our kids will survive without them.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.