Every so often, the argument over participation awards comes up. It might be a participation ribbon, a commemorative medal, or custom crystal awards. Sometimes it's a professional athlete talking about how they disagree with the concept that everyone gets a trophy. Most recently, James Harrison went to Instagram to voice his opinion on the matter.

It's tough to argue with Harrison. He's defied the odds to become a veteran professional football player in the NFL. As if that doesn't put him in elite enough company, he's done it as an undrafted free agent. Without a doubt, the man understands a work ethic.

Harrison is welcome to raise his children without participation trophies, but science might suggest something a little bit different. More and more we're learning that rewarding effort is often the key to inspiring even greater things.

Some of it comes down to understanding the difference between a "growth" and a "fixed" mindset. Most scientists mention Carol Dweck of Stanford and her research on praise. In Dweck's experiments, when subjects were praised for being "smart" they were significantly less likely to jeopardize that distinction than if they were praised for "working hard."

The difference is whether the focus is on the achievement or the effort. The idea of how smart we are seems somewhat fixed, kind of like how fast we run. Getting smarter or doing better is going to require hard work, effort, and praise for that effort is likely to get us to keep working hard even when the results (achievements) might not be the best.

Some of it comes down to simple mathematics. According to Dweck's research, we know that praising effort instead of achievement makes people about 37% more likely to keep working at more difficult tasks, and greater participation promises growth for everyone. It's possible those custom crystal awards may serve the greater good.

Think about it. If a peewee soccer league has 100 kids sign up for the first season, and we only give trophies to the winners, it's possible that only about 2/3 of them will be back next year. In just a few seasons, only the winners will be participating, and not all of them will still be getting awards.

The other part of the research shows what happens to effort when it stops receiving awards. When those awards stop showing up at the end of the season, effort plummets.

The bigger question is more long term. It's great that professional athletes want to pass the qualities that helped them become professional athletes on to their children. As a society, we need to look at the more important function that youth athletics provides us as a whole. Children who participate in sports are significantly more likely to work hard in school. They have lower drop out rates and are more likely to attend college.

Awarding effort keeps children involved in the sports and possibly attracts new participants to the competition. Besides, this year's dandelion picker may be next year's star, if we can keep them involved long enough to engage that interest.

Participation trophies aren't fooling anyone. Even the kids who get them know that the award was for trying hard not necessarily any particular achievement. But if 80% of success is showing up, it seems like trying hard may be exactly the sort of behavior we want to reward.