When the “Trophy Kids” Can’t Find Work

by Olivia Scheck

Olive Saturday was the last game of the little league soccer season – trophy day. My friend Jordan had talked me into being his assistant coach for the league we’d both played in as kids.

To be honest, it was a disappointing year.

Practices were primarily spent rolling in mud, fighting over who would retrieve a lost ball, and pleading for practice to end early. In games, most of the kids avoided the ball like a booger on the finger of a schoolyard enemy. They were desperate to be put in prestigious positions, but didn’t do anything when they got there.

Increasingly frustrated, I took it upon myself to crack the whip: Laps for the losers during competitive drills, personal callouts for lazy play, and – the nuclear option – public demands for chatting children to “stop flirting”.

When one of our players would flee the ball in terror, I would fantasize about running a drill in which we pelted him with soccer balls. In theory this would teach the kids that getting hit only stings for a second, though I admit it’s not a proven method. Jordan convinced me not to test it.

For the most part, the kids we’re unresponsive to criticism and I could sense their parents’ disapproval when we gave them negative feedback during games.

Following our regular Saturday afternoon loss, I would rant to Jordan about the need to stop coddling our players, invoking maxims about life lessons learned on the playing field. Then, Jordan would remind me, “They’re 9.”


Was he right? Is little league just about having fun? Or were we doing these kids a disservice by not cutting into them when they meandered around the field all game and then lost, 13 – goose egg?

The soccer skills weren’t important – I can assure you none of these kids will play soccer beyond the high school level – but it was an opportunity to teach them other things.

I’m not talking about leadership, teamwork, or sportsmanship, though those are good too. It was, most importantly, an opportunity to teach them how to learn.


In his book, How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer profiles Bill Robertie, one of the few people to achieve professional expertise in backgammon, chess and poker.

“For Bill Robertie,” Lehrer writes, “his success has a simple explanation: ‘I know how to practice. I know how to make myself better.’”

The key to Robertie’s practice methods ties into one of Lehrer’s principal arguments: In complex situations, our conscious thought-processes are insufficient for good decision-making.

Instead, we’re better off relying on emotional decision-making processes, which, though imperfect, consider a much larger set of variables in a short period of time. So, a useful practice session for a complex game is one that trains our emotional faculties to make better decisions – by associating positive emotions with good decisions and negative emotions with bad ones.

According to Lehrer, “The most effective way to get better is to focus on your mistakes.” Robertie is successful because he spends practices “Searching for his errors, dissecting those decisions that could have been a little bit better.”

According to this theory, “An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field” and internalized their lessons.

By not giving our little league pupils negative feedback, by encouraging them to “shake off” bad plays, we were allowing them to avoid the kind of learning that Robertie and Lehrer consider most important.


Still, it’s unclear what influence negative feedback has on this generation of little leaguers. The issue is complicated by another effect, which Lehrer touches on in the book.

As Carol S. Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, writes in a 2007 issue of Scientific American Mind, “Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability – along with confidence in that ability – is a recipe for success.” Magazine covers toting sensational genetic determinist headlines reinforce this contemporary wisdom.

As a result, “[Many] children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart [or talented]. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes, and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.”

So, while my criticism on the soccer field may have forced the members of team Hibernian to internalize their mistakes, thus refining their emotional decision-making skills, it may also have diminished their confidence and led them to disengage from the sport altogether.


In May 2008, 60 Minutes ran a piece about people of my own generation, the “millennials”, entering the workforce. Their approach was humorously anthropological – the oldest cast on television reporting on the bizarre tendencies of an alien species that believes it’s ok to wear flip flops to the office. However, there were several moments during the segment that rang true.

The main point, made by 60 Minutes’ wise and fashionable Morley Safer, was that “Childhoods filled with trophies and adulation didn’t prepare [the Millennials] for the cold realities of work.”

“You now have a generation coming into the workplace with this expectation that they will automatically win and they will always be rewarded – even for just showing up,” explained Mary Crane, who gives corporate lectures on inter-generational meshing.

Marian Salzman, an advertising executive, who oversees Millennial staffers, advised “…speak[ing] to them a little bit like a therapist on television might speak to a patient. You can’t be harsh,“ she warned. “You cannot tell them you’re disappointed in them.”

As a recent college graduate, just beginning my career, I can corroborate many of the claims made in the piece. There is a sense of entitlement – an assumption that good things will and should come to you as long as you stay the course and don’t mess up. There is a belief – which I cannot fully renounce – that one’s personal life should take precedence over one’s work. And it’s true that many of us – myself included – don’t respond well to negative feedback. These characteristics are so prevalent, in fact, that it felt strange to hear them presented as news.

What did surprise me was the fact, also reported in the segment, that companies were spending 50 billion dollars a year placating the millennial mentality. The need to recruit and retain the smartest young employees had birthed an entire industry dedicated to providing corporate perks, including free food, happy hours, and nap rooms.

Of course, the success of this industry is highly dependent on a single market condition “that there are more jobs than young people to fill them.”


So what happens when the opposite is true – when there are more young people than jobs, and employers have the upper hand?

My guess is that there are fewer happy hours and people rarely utilize the nap room. In fact, the nap room doesn’t exist anymore, and millennials like myself are forced to maintain awakeness for an entire day of work. In other words, employers no longer need to pamper employees in order to fill those positions with qualified workers.

But maybe there is a silver-lining to this shift in power: perhaps a more competitive job market will lead us to place greater emphasis on hard work over innate ability and constructive criticism over blind praise.

These would be positive developments not because hard work and negative feedback are valuable in themselves, but because these things make us better. It is frightening to think of what will happen if we do not adapt – if instead we become demoralized and disaffected by the negative feedback we will be forced to endure.

One hopes there won’t be a job shortage when it comes time for today’s little leaguers to enter the workforce. But we should teach them to work hard and accept criticism just in case.