Bison Illustrated Subscription

There are no participation trophies in life: Why you should encourage your child to play sports

Bison football Josh Swanson kids in youth sports

Chances are that your son or daughter will never receive a scholarship to play college athletics. According to the NCAA, there are 8 million students participating in high school sports in our country. Of those, only 480,000 will compete at the NCAA level. That’s less than six percent of high school athletes that will continue their playing career after high school.

While you should support your child’s dream of playing for North Dakota State, or being President of the United States if that’s their goal, at a more practical level, you should encourage them to play sports for reasons going far beyond receiving a college scholarship. Kids that play sports gain valuable life skills lasting years after they can shoot a free throw, turn a double play, spike a volleyball, make a textbook form tackle – or even if they do end up playing for the Bison, after they’ve raised a national championship trophy in Frisco, Texas or cut down the nets in Sioux Falls, S.D., at the Summit League Tournament.


In the real world, like competitive sports, there are no participation ribbons or trophies. Being friends with dozens of educators and coaches, and frequently discussing this topic with them, I hear increasing alarm in their voices. We’re seeing a digital generation where too many, including parents and school administrators think – even promote – the idea that showing up is good enough. It isn’t. One of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard is the quote that goes something like, “90 percent of life is showing up.” You know who never said that? Anybody that has achieved any sort of success in life. The idea that life is the act of merely showing up is lazy and threatens the fabric of our society. It sends a dangerous message to our youth – show up and you will be rewarded, life will be good, and you can live the American dream with your participation trophies on the mantle of your fireplace. Nothing could be further from the truth. Case in point: our championship teams at NDSU don’t just show up in the weight room, for conditioning, or for games and voila, the trophies and successes flow. We don’t get to Frisco by simply showing up.

Bison football camper participate in the Bison football camps

“Playing sports teaches a variety of lessons such as hard work, competitive drive, humility in victory and not allowing a loss to defeat your spirit,” said Adam Palczewski, a teacher and coach at West Fargo High School. Palczewski played defensive line for the Bison, graduating from NDSU in 2006. “Another benefit is kids learn that they can represent the ideals of a group of people when they wear the uniform of their school. It should instill pride in them. They begin to realize their actions have consequences not only for them but for others as well.”

To be successful in today’s flat and interconnected world, where change happens faster than you can update your Facebook or Twitter, our youth must learn to compete. They must be allowed to fail without a safety net and, most importantly, to learn how to get back up after being knocked down. “When a student is part of a team, that student learns how to converge all parts of the whole to achieve common goals,” explained Patrick Thiel, an NDSU alum that teaches and coaches in the Fargo South school system. “There are few lessons more powerful than self-sacrifice for the greater good. Great achievement is the result of great sacrifice, not selfishness.”

Your child will not get a pass if they turn their college term paper in late because there was a binge marathon of House of Cards on Netflix. Don’t even think about calling your child’s employer asking if Sally can miss work for a family event, making excuses for Billy’s subpar effort, or explaining that Johnny is late because his girlfriend recently broke up with him. Instead, you should encourage them to pick up a football, volleyball, baseball, track shoes, softball – any sort of ball – and be part of a team, to engage in an activity where they’ll learn the skills needed to not only succeed, but survive and thrive in our global economy.

These skills include accountability, dependability, resiliency, teamwork, learning to take coaching and criticism, commitment, adaptability, and embracing a competitive challenge. And yes, even physical fitness and taking care of themselves. “Besides the obvious benefits of getting regular exercise and developing a strong work ethic, being part of a team gets students ready to be leaders past high school and college,” said Thiel. Your son or daughter won’t be the next Carson Wentz, but that doesn’t mean they can’t acquire the same life skills Wentz and hundreds of other Bison have gained by playing competitive sports.

Bison SubscriptionsI know because I gained these critical skills in tiny Maddock, N.D, especially on our football field. Outside of my parents and grandparents, one of the men that most shaped who I am was my high school coach. He yelled at us when we screwed up, was tough when he needed to be, but had the respect of everyone that played for him, which included several decades of tough farm and ranch kids. Our parents had zero tolerance if we complained about how tough practice was, or how bad we got beat up as freshmen by the juniors and seniors (we literally had so many bruises we’d be limping to class). I remember coming to the sideline after throwing an interception and coach saying, “You know, you could see a lot better if you pulled your head out of your ____.” I didn’t respond by crying or defending my bad decision. I knew how to take his coaching and use it to improve my performance as opposed to shutting down. Like life, during the course of a game, not everything goes according to plan. When that happens now, because I played sports, I don’t panic. I adjust and move on.

“Parents should encourage their child to play sports as it is a way for the child to interact with many different individuals, along with forming relationships with their peers and coaches,” said Tommy Kirchoffner, the head boys basketball coach at Sheyenne High School in West Fargo. “Your child will also learn how to compete and how to deal with success and failure. Children will learn what resiliency is and how important it is in life. They will learn how to take risks and then learn from their failure – it doesn’t get any better than that because that is how you grow as a person.”

By the time I became a lawyer and was serving clients, I had already internalized all of the skills Palczewski, Thiel and Kirchoffner talked about. It wasn’t because of anything I learned in the classrooms at the Creighton University School of Law. I’ve succeeded as a lawyer, in large part, because of the skills I learned playing sports when growing up. One of the greatest lessons you can instill in your child is that life isn’t just showing up. You can do that by encouraging them to play sports. It’s one of the best investments in their future you can make.

Subscribe Bison Illustrated Now
Published eight times a year, Bison Illustrated provides a behind-the-scenes look at the Bison community in order to help promote the university’s players, coaches, alumni, supporters, staff and fans.


Copyright © 2021 Spotlight Media, LLC

To Top