“Tom, what do you think makes a good ball player?” the reporter asks.

“Um…” Tom pauses. His eyes roll as a shy smile grows across his six-year-old face. “I don’t know.”

Six-year-old Tom is now six-time Super Bowl Champion Tom Brady. Someone who knows a thing or two about winning in sports and in life. When Tom Brady is asked today about his success, he points often to his innate desire “to earn it every single day.” He points to his internal drive and motivation to be great, to take advantage of every opportunity he’s given, and to be a leader.

It’s a fantastic lesson for athletes, old and young, as well as parents and coaches. 

Why?

Because there’s a hot debate that’s been spiraling through the children’s sports world faster than a Tom Brady touchdown pass for the better part of the 21st century: are participation trophies for kids a good idea?

But this question, though a good one, overlooks what might be an even more important question to ask when enrolling little ones is a sports league: what is the best way to instill internal motivation in children?

Scroll on and learn what we’ve discovered about the role of participation trophies in children’s sports and what it takes to instill internal motivation in them.

Are participation trophies for kids a good idea?

The easy answer is, it depends on who you ask. Plenty of scholarly research has validated both points.

Why it’s a good idea.

On one hand, Sports Psychologist Dan Gould says “For rewards to work, they need to be earned.” Those who support this stance believe handing out participation trophies devalues trophies for the actual winner. It’s also commonly held that children will be less inclined to work hard because they get a reward either way.

Why it’s a bad idea.

But, on the other hand (err… other mit for baseball players) Psychology Professor Kennth Barish says “The idea of giving trophies only to the winners doesn’t emphasize enough of the other values that are important.” Those in favor of this idea believe that participation trophies actually reinforce effort and help little ones stay fully engaged in the sport. And staying engaged in the sport diverts attention away from harmful or unproductive behavior.

You can use this information to make your own decision. 

But before you do….

Consider this other interesting detail: when children become teenagers, the value of the participation trophy tends to lower. It’s at this age that they begin to understand the value of helping the team win, not just in receiving personal validation. 

So perhaps there is a place for both viewpoints. Perhaps there is a way to reward children while they’re young (either with trophies or some other meaningful prize) so they stay engaged and to instill an internal motivation in them to work hard, regardless of the glimmer of the winner’s trophy.

Speaking of internal motivation....

How to instill internal motivation in young athletes.

The most effective way to instill internal motivation in others, particularly children, is through great leadership. It’s not so much about little mind tricks and gimmicks here or there. It’s about leading athletes so that they want to be great. 

To get specific, James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, recommend five practices of great leaders:

  1. Model the Way: for children, this means demonstrate the kind of behavior, especially from an attitude standpoint, you want to see in them
  2. Inspire a Shared Vision: let children know the real end goal of a sport - how it’s not merely to get a trophy, but rather, to become a better human
  3. Challenge the Process: give kids feedback, show them how they can get better, don’t settle when you know they can grow
  4. Enable Others to Act: create a place where children can make mistakes without fear of shame
  5. Encourage the Heart: be specific in telling children what they do well, not just blanket statements about how they “did a good job”