Beyond “Most Improved”

The art and science of meaningful end-of-season awards that make kids feel seen

Diana McKeon Charkalis

| 4 min read

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At an end-of-season celebration in March 2020, parent-coach Casandra Karpiak saved one award for last. Before she gave it out, she told the story of a hockey player who began the season barely able to shoot a puck — and ended it by scoring a goal during the very last game of the year.

“Not every athlete I coach makes the effort to continually strive to improve or experiences such a dramatic achievement,” says Karpiak, of British Columbia. She noticed the boy’s frustration during drills and decided early in the season to help him improve his shooting skills. “It was really the small goals we worked on over time that created such an incredible outcome. The pride of achievement was all over this athlete’s face.”

End-of-season is traditionally the time to celebrate the successes of individual players — and the teamwork that backs them up. But creating meaningful recognition doesn’t just happen on its own. It takes thought, planning and a bit of creativity.  

Get really, really specific

“Awards become so meaningless when we rely on generic praise,” says Heather Bawol, a former international track and field athlete who now coaches kids in track and field in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “As a parent-coach, all we have to do is pay attention in the early weeks of the season, and the players will show us what they are interested in learning and what motivates them to work toward a goal.”

Throughout the season, Bawol has frequent check-ins to provide positive and constructive feedback. And at award time, she uses those check-ins to point out specifically what they did well.

Call out all kinds of skills

Youth sports should be about instilling a love of the game, which can then be used to help kids develop social-emotional skills along with athleticism, says Jennifer Brown Lerner, deputy director of the Sports & Society Program at The Aspen Institute, based in Washington, DC, and the mother of two boys who play youth sports.  

Offering up awards for things like great team communication, or the ability to brush off a mistake and recover quickly, can go a long way toward reinforcing the importance of such skills, Lerner says. “We’re working more specifically on helping coaches realize that they’re going to be teaching young people more than just physical skills.”

Write it all down 

Some coaches like to focus on individual achievements during awards, while others may tell the story of the season as a whole, weaving in and acknowledging the contributions of each individual member along the way.

Either way, it’s a lot to keep track of while managing everything else. Keeping weekly notes can help. “After each game, write one thing down that you’re proud of for as many kids on the team as you possibly can,” says Lerner. “That’s going to help jog your memory at the end of the season.”

Keep it short, make it fun

With the youngest kids, awards are mainly about the energy and the fun, says Colby Schwartz, who has coached all four of his kids on a variety of teams in Santa Monica, Calif., including tee-ball, soccer and basketball. For one end-of-season party for 4- and 5-year-old tee-ball players, he spontaneously decided to grant “knighthood” to each member of the team, who, naturally, were called The Knights. 

“They loved it,” he says. 

When giving awards to the youngest kids, he says, the trick is in the enthusiasm of the delivery more than the content. “I always tell people I don’t know much about soccer, but I’m pretty good at child-wrangling. I try to just create that excitement around their accomplishments and keep it lively,” says Schwartz. “You’re not trying to develop a lot of physical skills at age 5. You’re just trying to keep them coming back.”

It doesn’t matter when you do it

Not all coaches choose to give kids rewards or prizes at the end of the season, preferring to dole them out incrementally. For example, one of Lerner’s son’s Little League coaches in the DC area gave out one game ball after every game.

By the end of the season, every player had received one, and so the final celebration was just for the team as a whole. “He did an incredible job of having the game ball represent not just the good play, but also the good sportsmanship that someone demonstrated,” Lerner says. “It was really fair and equitable, and that’s something that I, as a mom, really enjoyed.” 

 

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