Lessons from a Linebacker: There Are No Participation Awards in the Real World

participation trophies james harrison

Steelers linebacker James Harrison created a small social media firestorm when he posted that he wouldn’t let his sons accept trophies for merely participating in sports. In fact, when he found out that they had participation awards, he had them sent back.

The intimidating linebacker (jhharrison92) posted a photo of two participation trophies on Instagram with the hashtag #harrisonfamilyvalues and had this to say:

“I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. 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…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy.”

When I checked, the post had 17.3k likes. Bravo!

I don’t know if Harrison’s boys will grow up to be athletes or go into business, but I know that if they decide to go into business for themselves, the lesson their father taught them about earning real trophies will serve them well. You see, the business world has something that’s nearly the equivalent of a children’s sports participation trophy – it’s called a bankruptcy judgment.

It concerns me that our country’s small business startup rate has been going down and I wonder if it’s because too many younger Americans grew up being awarded for merely participating and they realize that launching a successful business requires a much deeper level of commitment.

This might be reflected in the fact that as of 2013, immigrants started 430 businesses per 100,000 people while native-born Americans started only 250. And although immigrants are only one fifth of the labor force, they account for a quarter of the new US entrepreneurs. I suspect that these hard-working immigrant entrepreneurs were raised in cultures where they don’t hand out participation trophies.

In any case, learning the lesson that Harrison is teaching his children and adopting the attitude toward business formation that our immigrant population is modeling would serve us all well and do more to secure the future of our country than anything our politicians can do from Washington, D.C.

The basics are simple. For startup and small business success you need to be competitive and put in an effort that goes far beyond what you think you are capable of. Harrison, a five-time all-pro linebacker, said that sometimes our best isn’t good enough to win and when that’s the case we aren’t entitled to some kind of award.

And in that same spirit, we need to know that we can soar beyond what we consider our best. Sometimes it takes being knocked down – or facing the threat of failure – but there is always room for “extra effort,” for establishing a new “personal best” and then setting out and beating it tomorrow.

In every endeavor, refuse to settle for a participation trophy. In fact, see it as an insult to your potential.