Tokens and Trophies

Photo by Brett Sayles on

For honor, worthily obtained, is in its nature a personal thing, and incommunicable to any but those who had some share in obtaining it.”

— Benjamin Franklin to his daughter, 1784

This is my husband’s favorite quote, and I have come to appreciate it in the context of sports achievement. The partnership described in my book, Youth Sports: A Parent’s Guide, consists of three individuals: athlete, athlete’s parent, and coach. The primary relationship, due to its constant nature, is between athlete and parent. The roles shift and change as the child’s sports involvement progresses. By necessity, the parent is involved in nearly every aspect of the young athlete’s sports experience in the earlier years. However, later on the parent has a more supportive role, and is on the perimeter of the team’s culture. At least, that’s the norm.

Whenever an athlete is honored, it is his close circle of encouragers who appreciate it most. From little league’s “game ball,” which is usually predetermined to ensure everyone gets to be a recipient during the season, to the coach’s award for outstanding teammate, to MVP of the championship game, to a college scholarship, parents have been there from the beginning. As coaches develop stronger relationships with players, they, too share pride in any honor a player receives. And, we all assume, that the player enjoys it most. I am not so sure anymore.

When my children played sports, I saved every medal, trophy, plaque, certificate, newspaper article, and even a few jerseys. With three athletes involved in multiple sports, those items can mount up. Recently, during down-sizing, decisions about all the memorabilia I had collected for posterity had to be made. When asked if they would like these boxes of tokens and trophies, my children declined to store the items themselves. How about that? I saved them, stored them, moved them on several occasions, and more than a few ended up in the dumpster.

As athletic director, each sports team was recognized at the end of the season. It was a time to reflect on the highs the lows over subway sandwiches. The highlight (I thought) of these gatherings was presenting a token for their participation. Coaches bestowed a medal embossed with a lacrosse stick on a red, white, and blue ribbon. The next day while walking through the gym, I noticed several of these “awards” lying around. Then I recalled a question one of the players asked during the presentation the day before. “Coach Santi,” he asked, ” does everyone on the team get one of these?” That’s when it hit me. He was not asking to ensure all would be included in receiving the token; rather he was asking to assess its “value.” In other words, if everyone got one, how special was it? What honor did it actually bestow?

Contrast that with the sports banquet where we recognized several sports seasons at once. The school gifted each sports team a distinctive memento, so that if kids had played multiple sports, they would not be collecting duplicates. After what I considered to be a successful event, the next morning I was confronted by a parent who expressed her displeasure in the disparity among the tokens. She was offended that one sport seemed to have received a much nicer, more expensive memento. And her implication was that it demeaned her son’s sports team as a result.

My daughter’s gymnastics coach was the first one I ever heard say “trophies gather dust.” I later discovered that Mary Lou Retton, famous athlete from the Olympics of 1984 who put women’s gymnastics on the map, had also said this. At the time, I remember thinking, those trophies will always be important to me…and to my child. I can tell you now, that it is simply not the case. What does last and I believe is very important to most athletes, is the fun that the experience provided, the personal breakthroughs, the challenges overcome, and the friendships cherished to this day.

It’s natural to enjoy the moment of recognition, the occasional honor that is bestowed. But unless you enjoy the chore of dusting, that trophy or token will likely lose its prominence as the years go by.

Key Tips

  • Tokens and trophies are appreciated by those who have supported the athlete and are most familiar with their accomplishment.
  • Tokens and trophies lose their importance as the years elapse, and are eclipsed in importance by special relationships and memories associated with the sports experience.

2 thoughts on “Tokens and Trophies”

  1. This topic really spoke to me… I just tossed the last of my family’s dust laden participation trophies and medals. You are totally correct – it is the experience that matters the most.
    I hope to remember that too as the holidays begin. Instead of attempting to document everything with photographs …just being
    present will be my goal!


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